The Essential Humanity of Cognitive Dissonance
We operate with several, if not hundreds, of beliefs merely by getting up in the morning. Believing in our ability to fling off the sheets, will our bodies to move and do so in a proscribed way, the capacity of our feet and legs to carry us forward, lights will turn on when switch is flipped, etc., these are all beliefs that, while unconscious, must exist to go about a morning routine. If any of those come into doubt, whether by experiential evidence or changes in mental paradigm, the entirety of a basic routine comes to a screeching halt. Thankfully this type of belief rarely faces contrary evidence. The world operates, and this is a belief as well, in a static fashion, with effects following perceived causes and experiences falling well inside acceptable levels of deviation from a perceptual norm. Generally, whether one is right or wrong about these types of belief is, by and large, of little consequence. If we were to passively accept every piece of information initially considered as contrary, our lives would be a never-ending whirlpool of changing mental structure and we’d never get anything done. Take, for instance, the belief that one’s feet and legs will operate according to personal will and propel us forward. A contrary experience is a physical stumble, yet it would be considered bizarre indeed were such an experience to be thought of as grounds for disbelieving in the capacity of physical movement.
When confronted with a contrary piece of experience, the process that occurs is referred to as ‘cognitive dissonance’. “Cognitive dissonance, a term coined by Leon Festinger in 1957, is the process of self-justification whereby we defend our actions and thoughts when they turn out to be wrong or, as in the case of sour grapes, ineffectual. We interpret our failure to attain a goal as actually turning out to be a good thing because, with hindsight, we reinterpret the goal as not really desirable” (Hood, 2012). Confronted with contrary information, whether by personal experience that doesn’t quite match our view of the world or by being presented with a different opinion, we will invariably seek to defend our mental space. This is not an inherently negative behavior to engage in. Were we to passively change our beliefs every time a contrary piece of information is presented, we’d never get anything done, being as we would be at the mercy of every wind of chance in our lives. It behooves us to live our lives essentially being ok with making what is referred to as Type 2 errors, i.e. believing something is true regardless of evidence to the contrary.
However, there also exist conscious beliefs, or those beliefs that are more readily brought to conscious consideration, concerned as they are with our personal narratives or sense of self. These may be as specific as the belief that without going to work we won’t get paid and therefore can’t pay our bills, to a broader belief that one’s actions will effect others on the spectrum of positive or negative ways. A group of narrative beliefs can be referred to under the umbrella term ‘ideology.’ Such can take the form of religious and political, the repercussions of which will determine the legitimacy of yet further beliefs concerning personal behavior, the nature of human relationships and what social institutions are to be concerned with or whether they should exist at all. It is in this arena where ‘cognitive dissonance’ gets most of our attention.
Remember, the human tendency concerning beliefs is to continue supporting what already exists. Developmentally, we accept beliefs first and only later learn to analyze them. This framework continues throughout our lives. Once beliefs are met and initially accepted, they become difficult to change.
“Social psychologist Leon Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance attempts to explain the effects of refutational evidence on entrenched beliefs. According to Festinger, because individuals strive for consistency in beliefs, encountering a refutational message causes inconsistency or dissonance. Individuals often attempt to reduce dissonance by avoiding contradictory information. When contradictory information is unavoidable, individuals often invent means to misidentify from the message, and in the process, lose the original understanding of the message. When doubts about one’s beliefs are generated by reading contradictory messages, people are able to hold on to prior beliefs and dispel such doubts when they surround themselves with people who hold the same beliefs” (Hood, 2012).
This tendency to hold to one’s beliefs regardless of the extent to which contrary evidence is offered lies at the heart of a great deal of tension in social dialogue. Further, it is often utilized as a means of supporting ridicule, where the person holding a contrary belief must not be merely wrong but stupid and idiotic for not seeing what is “clearly!” the truth. The one perceiving they possess the correct opinion then becomes the repository of all that is reasonable and possessed of a level of rationality that conveniently ignores any and all previous situations where their opinion was changed only after time had passed. Given the plethora of ideas that lie in the wasteland of once accepted and now forgotten truths, the fervency with which one believes they are the embodiment of rationality and reasonable conclusions is at best a sign of egoistic naivety. This is not a promotion of any form of relativism. That history is replete with ideas later determined to be wrong does not mean truth is impossible to achieve, rather it supports why someone may find themselves hoping against hope that the other person’s opinion, rather than their own, will find itself on the scrapheap of history.
Given the weight that ideologies have for personal lives, this hope can be readily understood. “Cognitive dissonance protects the self from conflicting stories and is at the heart of why the self illusion is so important, but it also reveals the dangers that a strong sense of self can create. We use it to justify faulty reasoning. Although we do not appreciate it, our decision-making is actually the constellation of many processes vying for attention and in constant conflict. We fail to consider just how much of our decision-making is actually out of our control.” (Hood, 2012) What Hood is discussing pertains to everyone, religious or scientific, conservative or liberal. Much of what we believe is the result of childhood experiences, basic human mental heuristics and the consequence of our social circles. It is easy, when considering someone we disagree with, to point out the cognitive dissonance and become frustrated, if not angry, at their refusal to see the truth. However, not only is the process one indelible to humanity and therefore all of us, but it serves the very important personal and social purpose of supporting a central narrative that we call ‘self.’
Beliefs are not free-floating entities selected out of a cognitive smorgasbord, they are the building blocks of our sense of self and the means by which we construct our present and project our lives into the future. “What humans possess is the freedom to decide to expend the cognitive effort to analyze propositions; however, they cannot decide what the result of this effort will be. The result is determined by the rules one applies in the analysis, the principle rule usually being coherence with other beliefs” (Douglas, 2000). This is why study after study indicates that when confronted with contrary evidence, particularly if done so in an emotionally charged manner, people will even more strongly adhere to their beliefs. With this understanding, it is safe to say that the acceptance of beliefs is not for the purpose of any high-minded search for cosmic or transcendent truth, but to determine a workable coherent model of one’s life and place in it. This is undoubtedly why groups of like-minded individuals flock together, not because they’re fleeing truth, but because by doing so life becomes more easily livable.
Confronting one’s belief-structure or ideology is not a mere intellectual exercise. In the midst of debate, the inflammation of emotional states is not due to a self-aggrandizing allegiance to truth or a diabolical desire to adhere to a falsity. “Not only does doubt seem to be the last operation to emerge, but it also seems to be the first to disappear” (Gilbert, 1991). When we come across cognitive dissonance, it may be best to first recognize that such is an act of mutually-held humanity and then endeavor to see where the intersection of belief and living adheres together. Not only will this be helpful in coming to a better understanding of another person’s ideology (indeed, ours as well), but will encourage an offering of a potentially different way of living, not simply a bombardment of contrary information.
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Douglas, N. L. (2000). ENEMIES OF CRITICAL THINKING: LESSONS FROM SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY RESEARCH. Reading Psychology, 21(2), 129–144. http://doi.org/10.1080/02702710050084455
Gilbert, D. T. (1991). How mental systems believe. American Psychologist, 46(2), 107–119. http://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.46.2.107
Hood, Bruce (2012-04-25). The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (p. 160). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.