Two weeks ago, I wrote a column on LinuxInsider to think out loud about the fundamental differences between Microsoft’s operating systems and Unix variants like Linux, Darwin, BSD and Solaris. That drew the usual kinds of responses: Some people said nice things, others critiqued my work, and a lot of slashdotters wandered off to express their own opinions.
That was great; I like that kind of thing a lot because it opens up new contacts, shows me what others think, and lets me know what to change and what to keep on the list of things that I think I know.
On the other hand, I got a piece of particularly negative e-mail from a person who also sent a different — but equally dismissive and nasty — note to the editors at LinuxInsider. The letter writer refused to contribute to the discussion forum and turned down the editor’s invitation to back up his allegations with a fact-filled piece of his own.
As these things go, this one wasn’t all that bad; it just described me as dishonest, incompetent and malicious — really nothing my high school vice principal for discipline didn’t say unfairly often.
An Indefensible Position
I saw a lot of this kind of thing a few years ago when I did a series of three articles for Linuxworld.com that started out intending to praise IBM’s zSeries Linux and ended up describing it as an absurdly expensive and ineffective solution of value only for those too far behind the technology curve to get off the mainframe.
Needless to say, my findings weren’t all that popular with those committed to the technology, so I got almost 3,000 pieces of hate mail — including one masterpiece FedEx’ed to my home on company letterhead.
Those people had a big problem because they were deeply committed to a fundamentally indefensible decision. This letter-writer last week found himself in a very similar situation. In his case, back in 1999, when I was drafting my Unix Guide to Defenestration, he was defaming Linux for WinNT magazine and building a career praising the security and extensibility of Windows NT as the world’s future uber-OS. Oops.
If you bet your professional credentials on a technology that fails to deliver — like Windows NT — then what do you do?
There are really only two choices: fight or flight, denial or adaptation. In my experience, weaker people tend to prefer denial; in fact, the more wrong such people are, the more likely they seem to be to actively hate those who draw their attention to the uncomfortable truth, and the harder they seem willing to work at inventing rationales for their emotions.
There’s a theoretical basis for this observation. Back in the 1940s, a guy named Leon Festinger, then at Harvard, developed a theory of cognitive dissonance by looking at what information people preferred to obtain and, conversely, what they preferred to avoid.
He showed, for example, that people who owned Fords avidly read Ford advertisements while skipping Chevy ads in the same magazines. In brief, this theory predicts that people will preferentially seek out information supporting their opinions while avoiding, to the point of attacking the messenger, contrary information. In other words, the canonical response to information countering a deeply held belief is to beat either the facts or the other guy into submission.
Please don’t think for a moment that this kind of thing is remotely limited to such trivial matters as people questioning my competence, honesty, parentage or taste in beer. Behaviors resulting from attempts to reduce cognitive dissonance are universal human phenomena and affect everything from your boss’ reaction to your next great idea to American leadership of the free world.
Understanding the Reaction
Think about your own reactions next time you read an ad for some product you own or support but skip a competitor’s, or just listen to the talking heads on CNN and think about Washington Post writer Charles Krauthammer’s characterization of a statement by Senator Kennedy with the words: “Kennedy’s rant reflects the Democrats’ blinding Bush-hatred, and marks its passage from partisanship to pathology.”
What he’s talking about is an extreme case, a pathology of hate: What you get when people know they’re wrong but are too deeply invested to change. It’s what drives otherwise perfectly sane and reasonable people to send e-mail attacking the motives and abilities of writers they don’t know, drives political opponents to lose all track of truth or ethics in their attacks on each other, and removes the element of reason from religious conflict.
It’s also something you can inoculate yourself against simply by understanding it. Read some of Festinger’s work and then think about what it means next time someone comes to you with some obviously absurd proposal, such as using a Windows OS — or mainframe Linux. Track your own reactions, then ask yourself: Are you responding to the information contained in the proposal? Or are you reacting to it as an attack on your ideas?
Train yourself to answer that question as honestly as possible, and you’ll find yourself making generally smarter choices and better decisions — while no doubt attracting considerable criticism from people who can’t do it.
Paul Murphy, a LinuxInsider columnist, wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.