We Are Killing Ourselves with Cognitive Dissonance

We just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new best-seller, The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War. It’s a wild ride with surprising implications for one of today’s most significant problems.

The “Bomber Mafia” was a group of U.S. airmen, led by General Haywood Hansell, who believed in precision bombing. Using the Norden bombsight, developed by engineer Carl Norden, members of the Bomber Mafia believed they could win WWII while minimizing civilian casualties on the ground by precision bombing pinch points in the enemy’s defenses with daylight bombing runs. For example, the bombers would target ball-bearing plants or airplane manufacturing facilities, aiming to disable the enemy’s war machine with just a few narrow and accurate strikes. The daylight bombing runs would be riskier for the planes, of course, but would save civilian lives.

British allies, on the other hand, believed it better to bomb at night (so as to minimize the loss of British planes) and to drop the bombs indiscriminately on enemy cities so as to break the enemy’s will. Many American officers, including General Curtis LeMay agreed with the British strategy.

In favoring precision bombing over indiscriminate bomb-dropping, Gladwell says, the Bomber Mafia “weren’t just advancing a technological argument. They were also advancing a moral argument about how to wage war. The most important fact about Carl Norden …[is] that he was a devoted Christian.” From the vantage point of 2021, we found ourselves rooting for the Bomber Mafia. We want this much more civilized method of war-making to win the day. But it did not.

As Gladwell explained in a 2011 Ted Talk, while the Bomber Mafia members believed they could “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet,” the reality was far different. While the Norden bombsight might work well under ideal conditions, those were not to be found in wartime. As a typical example, in 1944 in attempting to destroy a 757-acre German chemical plant, Hansell’s planes dropped 85,000 bombs in 22 missions. Only 10% of the bombs landed on the site and the plant was up and running not long thereafter.

The men of the Bomber Mafia were undeterred by the failures of the Norden bombsight in Europe and attempted to utilize the same precision bombing tactics against Japan. Hansell first targeted the Nakajima aircraft plant, reasoning that if this important source of Japanese planes could be destroyed with precision bombing, a huge blow against the Japanese war effort would be struck. What happened? Says Gladwell:

The first raid damaged a mere 1 percent of the Nakajima plant. Hansell tried again three days later. None of the bombs actually hit the plant. On December 27 [1944] he sent back seventy-two B-29s. They missed the plant but would up setting fire to a hospital. In the end, Hansell went after that factory five times and barely touched it.

Part of the difficulty was the same problem the Bomber Mafia had had over Europe: clouds.

The multiple failures of precision bombing led the brass to replace Hansell as commander of the Twenty-First Bomber Command with LeMay, who led a full-scale attack on Tokyo on March 9, 1945. There was no pretense at precision bombing. The planes dropped napalm bombs in the vicinity of a 12-square mile region of central Tokyo, creating a firestorm that probably killed 100,000 people in just six hours. LeMay gave many other Japanese cities a similar treatment, destroying up to 99% of some of them, killing perhaps a million civilians. And then, of course, the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, effectively ending the war.

The general morality of war, and the more specific morality of dropping bombs, especially on civilians, would be a worthwhile topic for an ethics blog post. However, we want to focus, as did Gladwell, on the cognitive dissonance exhibited by the Bomber Mafia.

Cognitive dissonance (see our video on the concept) is the psychological discomfort that we feel when our minds entertain two contradictory concepts at the same time. Despite the consistent (though not universal) failures of the Norden bombsight to enable effective precision bombing, members of the Bomber Mafia had difficulty giving up this attractive idea that they had embraced so thoroughly. Gladwell attributes this mismatch of belief and reality to cognitive dissonance, a concept discovered and named by psychologist Leon Festinger. Gladwell told this story that we related in an earlier blog post, where we wrote:

…when people voluntarily commit to a particular belief or position and new evidence comes in to contradict that belief or position, our self-concept is threatened and our cognitive processes work unconsciously to suppress such information if possible.

Festinger learned this when he studied a cult whose leader had predicted the end of the world on a certain date. Aliens from outer space were going to come and take the cult members away as the rest of humanity died in a worldwide holocaust. The cult members sold their worldly possessions and followed their leader to the designated pickup spot where the aliens were to appear at midnight. Spoiler alert: no aliens arrived. Several hours later the leader announced that she had received a new and revised message from the aliens: the earth was being spared because of the faithful actions of the cult members. One would think that any sensible follower would have lost all confidence in the leader, given that her prophesy was indisputably wrong. However, as Festinger had predicted, instead the followers believed in their leader more than ever. Cognitive dissonance caused them to reconcile the inconsistencies so they could tell themselves that they had been right all along in trusting their leader.

Gladwell thought that Hansell was “delusional” as he continued to attempt (mostly unsuccessfully) precision bombing after so many failures, and writes that “Whatever evidence was slowly gathering about the limitations of the Norden bombsight didn’t faze [the Bomber Mafia]. The dream was alive.”

Cognitive dissonance can exercise a powerful hold over the thinking apparatus of normal people, often to detrimental effect. Those who believed Rush Limbaugh when he said that COVID-19 is “the common cold,” Marjorie Taylor-Greene when she said that the coronavirus was “not dangerous for non-obese people and those under 65,” or a cardiologist on Fox News who said there is “no clinical reason to go get vaccinated” have difficulty accepting reality when it comes up and bites them. Like the cultists Festinger studied, they view themselves as part of a particular in-group (see our video on the In-group/Out-Group Bias). Substantial evidence that nearly 100% of people who are dying these days from COVID-19 are unvaccinated seems to have little impact on what these in-group members believe, or at least will admit to believing. So, as they are diagnosed with COVID, hospitalized, put on ventilators, and approach death’s door, many of them still refuse to admit reality. Their dying words are often: “This can’t be happening. It’s not real.” (Shannon)

Whether you are a member of the Bomber Mafia or a vaccine skeptic, once you’ve drunk your in-group’s tribal Kool-Aid, any facts that threaten your tribal identity are unlikely to have much of an impact due to cognitive dissonance, which can cause people to hold on to factual and other beliefs long after they are discredited.

People who wish to be moral must always strive to base their moral judgments and action decisions upon accurate factual bases, and must therefore guard against the impact of cognitive dissonance.

Gladwell ends the book with good news. The moral case for precision bombing is a strong one, if it can be done effectively. During World War II, the Norden Bombsight did not reach this goal, despite Hansell’s aspirations for it. But today, precision bombing is much more effective and is, thankfully, the preferred American approach. As Gladwell concludes: “Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.”



Joshua Baylor, “Amazing Innovation or Billon Dollar Blunder? The Norden Bombsight,” Apr. 27, 2019, at https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/the-norden-bombsight.html.

Joel Cooper, Cognitive Dissonance: Fifty Years of a Classic Theory (2007).

Ross Douthat, “How to Reach the Unvaccinated,” New York Times, July20, 2021, at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/20/opinion/covid-vaccine-hesitancy.html.

Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957).

Malcolm Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (2021).

Christopher Kratzer, “The Enigma of the Norden Bombsight,” Jan. 20, 2012, at https://www.maxwell.af.mil/News/Display/Article/420450/the-enigma-of-the-norden-bombsight/#:~:text=One%20of%20the%20most%20famous,plant%20using%20the%20Norden%20Bombsight..

Lyle Muller, “Dying While Denying: One of the Heart Wrenching Stories from Treating COVID Patients,” IowaWatch, March 16, 2021, at https://www.iowawatch.org/2021/03/16/507470/

Joel Shannon, “’It’s Not Real’: In South Dakota, Which has Shunned Masks and Other COVID Rules, Some People Die in Denial, Nurse Says,” USA Today, Nov. 17, 2020, at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2020/11/17/south-dakota-nurse-jodi-doering-covid-19-patients-denial/6330791002/.

Daniel Villareal, “Louisiana Man Dies of COVID-19 After Calling Vaccines ‘Poison,’” Newsweek, July 16, 2021, at https://www.newsweek.com/louisiana-man-dies-covid-19-after-calling-vaccines-poison-1610682.



Malcolm Gladwell, “The Strange Tale of the Norden Bombsight” (2011), at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpiZTvlWx2g.

Cognitive Dissonance: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/cognitive-dissonance

In-Group/Out-Group Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-groupout-group

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