Toothless is Beautiful: How Humans Will Justify Almost Anything.

Newsweek has an interesting article on cognitive dissonance - basically a term used by psychologists to describe the intense discomfort of having two conflicting thoughts, beliefs, or perceptions at the same time. Humans, they say, will justify almost anything.

Here's an example how the Nuer and Dinka tribes of southern Sudan "justify" toothlessness as beauty:

The Nuer and the Dinka tribes of southern Sudan share an unusual custom. Both of these cattle-herding societies remove several of their kids' permanent front teeth as soon as they sprout: two on the top and four to six on the bottom. It's a very painful procedure, done with a fish hook, and it leaves all tribe members with a distinctive slack-jawed look and speech impediments.

This practice probably started long ago, when tetanus was rampant in central Africa. Tetanus causes "lockjaw," but the tooth removal would have allowed children afflicted by this infectious disease to drink liquids even when their jaw muscles clamped shut. Although there has been no tetanus or lockjaw in the southern Sudan for ages, both the Nuer and the Dinka continue the custom of extracting the front teeth. Indeed, they believe the sunken jaw and lower lip are beautiful. People with front teeth, they say, look like jackals.

Social psychologist Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson described this in terms of cognitive dissonance:

In the case of the Nuer and Dinka, they "choose" to believe that the toothless look is aesthetically pleasing in order to justify the infliction of such trauma on their children. Any connection to health and survival is long gone.

Link - via New York University PR Forum


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I thought this a very interesting article due to having many Dinka and Nuer friends who were part of this practice as children. They all would prefer to have teeth. One man in particular had major damage done to his mouth due to complications from a botched tooth removal. I think they all wish to be part of the modern world and realize this is an outdated, unproductive custom.
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Although I agree that cognitive dissonance is just one of many possible explanations for this, cognitive dissonance does play an influential role in our everyday behaviours.
One study revealed that participants who were paid to do a long, boring experiment (pulling levers etc...) were far less likely to say that they enjoyed it than those who weren't paid. Researchers argue that this is because while those people who were paid could justify their behaviour that conflicted with something they usually wouldn't do using external influences (money), those who weren't paid justified it internally (i.e. it was somewhat enjoyable).
There have been many variations of this study that reliably reproduce the effect of cognitive dissonance.
Psychologists are currently studying cognitive dissonance and the power it has to change peoples' opinions (e.g., quitting smoking, dissolving stereotypes etc...).
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Don't forget circumcision when you're talking about unjustified body alteration. Sorry, but in a culture where it's normal to brush one's teeth twice a day, I think most males can manage cleaning their bits now and then without surgical help.
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