During the 2012 election, one of the more amusing sidelights was that of Dean Chambers, an amateur pollster who was "unskewing" the polls that showed Obama with a significant lead. He arrived at his conclusions by looking at the raw data, deciding that it overestimated Democratic turnout and underestimated Republican turnout by a number of percentage points, and then correcting the totals to match. The source of this data was his certainty that the Republicans were going to beat the Democrats this time around.

Needless to say, that didn't happen.

At that point, everyone expected Chambers to recant his "unskewing" efforts, and at first it looked like that was going to happen. An interview with him the day after the election found him questioning Rasmussen's poll numbers. But eventually, he settled on an alternative explanation, posted at his new website: Somehow, the Democrats had used fraud to skew the vote numbers just as surely as they'd skewed the polls. The election had been stolen from the rightful winner, Mitt Romney, and only he knew it!

This might seem like a totally irrational conclusion. And in fact, it is. But psychologically speaking, it really was the only conclusion Chambers could come to, and behind the fold, I'll explain why.

The answer lies in a psychological phenomenon known as "cognitive dissonance". Roughly, cognitive dissonance is the idea that we like to think of everything we say, do, experience and believe as being internally consistent. When we find something out that doesn't "fit" with what we already know, we have a tendency to reject it or modify it in order to make it fit into our internal framework of reference. If, for example, you told me you could fly, I'd probably assume you were lying. If you rose up slowly off the floor, I'd probably assume you were on wires. My brain reacts to resolve the apparent discontinuity between what I know to be true, and what I'm seeing.

This is usually a good thing. Usually, the person who says they can fly is lying. But psychologists have found out two important problems with the mind's tendency to resolve incompatibilities. One, it's a lot stronger than most people imagine. If, in the example above, you did a few barrel rolls and loop-the-loops to prove that there were no wires, my mind might try to resolve the incongruity by claiming you have hidden suction fans in the ceiling that are pulling you into the air. If you took me outside and flew me up to 5,000 feet, I might respond by insisting you spiked my drink with some sort of hallucinogen. I might even try to wriggle free, just to prove that I'm not really in the air. People who are in the throes of severe cognitive dissonance will come up with rationalizations that are far more implausible than the event they're trying to deny, and they can be a danger to themselves and others if their denial of reality reaches a critical point.

The second problem is that cognitive dissonance is much stronger when it comes to things we've said and done. When our words and actions make no sense, the mind responds by adjusting our perception of reality to make our actions conform to the model. If someone smokes, for example, and is confronted with information about the health risks of smoking, they're more likely to discount the importance and/or accuracy of the study than a non-smoker. Why? Because if they admit that smoking is dangerous, they'll have to admit that it makes no sense for them to continue smoking. But they do it. So the only logical answer is that it must not really be dangerous.

This is the situation Chambers is in. He is a textbook case of cognitive dissonance in action. For him to admit that the polls were not skewed is to have to admit that he has been quite publicly saying and doing things that make no sense whatsoever. He has to resolve the inconsistency between his words and his actions and the information that has come in, otherwise his world does not have any kind of rationality to it. The only logical way for his brain to resolve this incongruity is to come up with a way to devalue the information that contradicts his worldview. Hence, the votes must be faked. There is no other answer that allows him to function as a human being.

The most famous case of this was documented in the book, 'When Prophecy Fails', where a doomsday cult was studied in real time as their predictions failed to come true and they struggled to resolve their beliefs with the continued existence of the world. Thanks to the wealth of data that Chambers has provided with his websites and his media appearances, it could be that future generations will study him as well.

Your Email has been sent.