Cognitive Dissonance and the Survey Critics

We Jews invented cognitive dissonance. The American Jewish psychologist, Leon Festinger, was the first to coin the phrase and to use it to describe people’s responses to information which conflicts with their own understandings of reality.

There’s a perfect illustration of the phenomenon in the flurry of argument, rationalisation and denial that has surfaced in response to our survey of British Jews’ attitudes to Israel (conducted in association with City University and Ipsos Mori, and funded by Yachad).

Interestingly, no one has questioned our data showing that 90-95 per cent of British Jews are strongly attached to Israel. Nor have we been accused of bias in finding that 70 per cent believe that the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state, or that 63 per cent agree that “peace negotiations are pointless” while there’s incitement against Israel in Palestinian schools.

Yet there have been vociferous criticisms of our findings that 75 per cent of the very same sample regard settlement expansion as “a major obstacle to peace”, that 68 per cent feel “a sense of despair” when further expansion is approved and that a majority (47 per cent to 32 per cent) consider that “Israel is constantly creating obstacles to avoid engaging in the peace process”.

For those who believe that Israel is entirely on the right track and that no loyal Jew could think otherwise, findings which are critical of Israel’s policies are apparently very troubling; debunking them therefore becomes essential to reducing the cognitive dissonance and preserving one’s core beliefs.

Take Geoffrey Alderman’s assertion in the JC on November 27 that we asked “loaded” questions to achieve the results we wanted – in effect that we rigged the survey. A loaded question is one that requires you to accept a contentious premise as part of the answer. “Have you stopped beating your wife?” is the classic example. There were no such questions in the survey. All of them used the format: “To what extent do you agree or disagree with…” And as anyone who has read the report will know, the statements covered the complete political spectrum, exactly balancing the number of left- and right-leaning viewpoints.

Equally absurd are the claims, again echoed by Alderman, that our findings are undermined by a JC Survation poll showing that 67 per cent supported Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact the JC poll showed that only 31 per cent actively supported him; 54 per cent said they didn’t know or wouldn’t vote if they had the opportunity and 15 per cent backed other leaders.

The Survation poll did not ask questions about British-Jewish attitudes to Israeli policy so its findings are not comparable. And in any case, the sample was not weighted for three of the key variables known to be linked to attitudes to Israel (religiosity, politics, education). Our sample was, making it more representative.

As British Jews and social researchers, we undertook to conduct the research to provide our community with hard information on what British Jews think on matters such as settlements, Palestinian rights and the search for peace. As a community, we cannot rely on what some of us think in our hearts must be the case. We need rigorous evidence on which to base the policies of our communal institutions. And we need to give the evidence a fair hearing – even when it points in directions some may not like.

Cognitive dissonance may allow us to kid ourselves for a while, but robust evidence has a habit of leaking out. Read the report and decide for yourself.

(with Steve Miller and Margaret Harris)

Jewish Chronicle 10 December 2015

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