Cognitive dissonance, alien visitors and Lagos De Covadonga

Alien drawn by Riley Martin who, despite what you may think, is an adult

The world was supposed to end at midnight on December 21, 1954. At least that's what Marian Keech's followers believed, as they gathered in her Chicago home, and waited for an alien visitor to come save them. Despite the fact that they had all quit their jobs, left their significant others, and given away all their money, the alien never came. Additionally, and as you've probably gathered by now, the world didn't end that day either.

But Leon Festinger, a social psychologist studying the people who gathered that day to await the end of the world, thought that it was at that point, when the alien visitor failed to show up, that things got interesting. In his book When Prophecy Fails, Festinger studied the mechanisms that the group used to cope with the fact that a belief they held so dear was at odds with reality. Namely the fact that the world had not come to an end at midnight on December 21, 1954. In their case, the group merely came to believe that by their faith alone, they had "spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction." And with that, they were able to reconcile their earlier belief with reality. Simple as that.

It was in describing their struggle, and eventual search for reconciling two opposing beliefs, that Festinger coined the term "cognitive dissonance". Simply put, cognitive dissonance describes the feeling of discomfort that can result when we hold two conflicting beliefs....say, the belief that that world will end, and the knowledge that it didn't. Because of this discrepancy—this dissonance—we attempt to change something in order to completely eliminate or reduce the dissonance.

Perhaps you're familiar with this concept, and even Festinger's work. Perhaps you even feel that my description of both is putrid (putrid writing is a skill I've come to master while writing this blog). Either way, I'm certain that you've experienced many examples of this throughout your life. It's tough to deal with the fact that celebrities are better looking than us. We want to look that way, so we tell each other that they're short, photoshoped and unhappy.

Once you start noticing examples of this type of behavior, you simply won't be able to stop noticing when you first realize that your co-worker keeps cleaning his ears, and then smelling his fingers afterward. Once you notice it, there's no going back.

New beefy bottom bracket standard, photographed in China. First belief: The bottom bracket is beefy, it looks cool, and I wish I had it on my frame. Second belief: I can't afford the bike. Way to solve this dissonance: Tell yourself and others that it's all marketing hype, it's stupid, and anyone who buys the frame is an idiot.

For me, this feeling of spotting cognitive dissonance intensified over the last couple of weeks. This is because as I traveled through mainland China and Hong Kong, I read Festinger's book. As I read it, I was suddenly overwhelmed by how common cognitive dissonance is in everyday life, but also how common it is in cycling.

After all, how else can riders explain that they're being beaten by someone else? They want to be that strong. Well, surely that guy who beat them must be doping.

How can it be that so-and-so is so strong on the bike? I want to be that good. Ah, must be because he has no job, and riding is all he does. Can't possibly be that he's just better than me.

And how about that set of wheels over there, could they be faster? Maybe I sort of wish I could afford them. But hey....they they make no difference, and on top of that, that guy is an idiot for buying them and riding on them. I'm smarter for having cheaper wheels.

Could it be that the guy with those wheels is fast enough to warrant using such equipment (not that it matters, since it's his money, not yours, that he's spending)? Not at all, he's just a rich (insert medical title here), who has more money than taste.

So at all costs, dissonant cognitions must be minimized. In other words, not only did the alien not come, he didn't come because we saved the planet. You see, something must be done to appease our feelings, and we turn into babies who are eagerly looking for a bottle to find comfort.

Speaking of comfort, it's comforting to know that no matter where in the world you are, you'll always find a guy on a fixed gear bike who is set on filming himself doing skids as he nearly runs you over.

So as I traveled, and had only minimal amount of internet access (or access to any media in a language I can really understand), I started to pick up on the big news breaking in the world of cycling. It took days for the news to come my way. Tour titles stripped, testimony by this one and that one, facts released by another. Eventually, when I was able to read up on these matters, I was overwhelmed by how readily many tried to appease the dissonance they encountered.

All of a sudden people were left scrambling, looking for ways to negotiate an earlier belief, with current events. It was as though midnight had come and gone, and the alien visitor had never arrived. The world had not come to an end, and yet I couldn't help but notice just how many were talking like it had.

Bike shop/bike repair station


I received an email recently in which a reader asked why I end so many posts with a small "marginalia" section, rather than writing in a continious manner. The answer is easy, I struggle with segues, and rather than come up with a witty way of transitioning from alien visitors to the Vuelta A España, I just put in a horizontal line, and move on to the next thought.

Photo: El Espectador
Maybe I'm an overly sentimental fool (actually, I know I am), but seeing Nairo Quintana ride with the best at the Vuelta in the Lagos De Covadonga stage made me a bit emotional. It was there, after all, that a Colombian (Lucho Herrera) first claimed the leader's jersey in a grand tour. Quintana's abilities are clearly promising, but it was not until I spoke with Fabio Duarte (Colombia-Coldeportes) yesterday afternoon that things were really put things into context for me. As Duarte puts it, and he was not saying this for effect, Quintana's talent, abilities and strength are "scary". He said this twice, and just went silent afterward. From someone who knows him, and has ridden alongside Quintana, this is high praise.

Note to self: obsessing with looking like a professional, even if you are not one, is not exclusive to cyclists. Apparently, neither is the need to point out the flaws of those who "are doing it wrong".

Long time readers of the blog will no doubt be aware of the fact that I sport fashionable adult braces. Well, today is a big day for me. The top ones are coming off, so if you see someone around town carelessly eating corn on the cob, but only using his top teeth to bite down, it's probably me. Wave and say "hello".

You saw this, right?