On Cognitive Dissonance

This is the first of three planned posts, each dealing with a different aspect of cognitive dissonance. Due to the length and the detail needed to hit my points, I’ll be posting the sections separately.

There once was a boy, who was given a pet box turtle. He wanted it to come out of its shell, but it stubbornly refused. He tried knocking on it, squirting water in its face, prying at the hinge, yelling at it, but only got his fingers nipped for his efforts. His grandfather, seeing the difficulty, took the turtle and put it down in the grass, with some lettuce and strawberries nearby. In a few minutes, the turtle was out and crawling around in the sunshine.

It’s not a metaphor I’m going to extend very far, but it’s an image I like to keep in mind as I kick around the concept of cognitive dissonance. It’s a subject I find fascinating, not least because it is stupefyingly ubiquitous. Essentially it is the theory that, when human brains contain two cognitions (ideas, observations, emotions) which are in conflict, we find it uncomfortable. Like having your shoes on the wrong feet, or being hungry, or being too cold, we are driven to resolve the discomfort. We take steps to ease our mental distress, typically by rejecting, trivializing, or compartmentalizing one of the conflicting ideas.

I was listening to a recent episode of the For Good Reason podcast, with Carol Tavris, co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), which I’m currently reading as a result. She pointed out something which in hindsight is blindingly obvious: dissonance is particularly acute when one of the ideas in conflict is tied into the perception of ourselves. By and large, we all think of ourselves as reasonably smart, kind, good-looking, and above-average drivers. When we screw up in one way or another, dissonance immediately kicks in. It generates excuses, dismissals, mitigating circumstances, any kind of self-justification that will enable our self-images to remain untarnished. We rarely perceive the process, because not only are we very good at it, it is entirely unconscious and can often pre-empt the assimilation of conflicting ideas in the first place.

I can’t speak to anyone else, but I have experienced this myself, to the point where the self-justification has even tampered with my memories. I was making a right-hand turn on a rainy night, I got sideswiped by another car, and I was found to be at fault in the accident. When asked by the police whether I saw the other car before turning, I said “No.” But inside of a week, after dealing with police reports and insurance agents, I had become so convinced that I had done nothing wrong that I started remembering seeing the other car’s headlights in the outside lane, directly in opposition to my statement at the time. It couldn’t have been me; it must have been an inattentive lane change by the other car that caused the collision. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m more upset with myself that I was too shaken and incoherent to realize my answers to the police were going to be used against me. The memory still galls; I still see myself making mental excuses. In ultimate hindsight, I recognize the entire incident is fertile ground for dissonance-induced self-justification, and I simply try and drive more carefully.

Next: Cognitive Dissonance and Skepticism

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6 Responses to On Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Jay Pea says:

    Very good blog. I have often found myself making excuses for mistakes. I try to cop to it when I am wrong, but it’s a difficult thing to do and now I kind of understand why.
    So, is the cognitive dissonance described above a kind of self preservation?

  2. ken says:

    “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
    -F. Scott Fitzgerald

  3. Derrick says:

    “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” — Aristotle

    Not impossible, just unnatural and to a degree uncomfortable. Compartmentalization is a wonderful thing.

  4. ken says:

    Nietzsche, the master psychologist, explained all this business more brilliantly than anyone over 120 years ago in his book Twilight of the Idols, which should be required reading for all sentient beings…

    “..to extract something familiar from something unknown relieves, comforts, and satisfies us, besides giving us a feeling of power. With the unknown, one is confronted with danger, discomfort, and care; the first instinct is to abolish these painful states. First principle: any explanation is better than none. Because it is fundamentally just our desire to be rid of an unpleasant uncertainty, we are not very particular about how we get rid of it: the first interpretation that explains the unknown in familiar terms feels so good that one “accepts it as true.” We use the feeling of pleasure (“of strength”) as our criterion for truth.
    A causal explanation is thus contingent on (and aroused by) a feeling of fear. The “why?” shall, if at all possible, result not in identifying the cause for its own sake, but in identifying a cause that is comforting, liberating, and relieving. A second consequence of this need is that we identify as a cause something already familiar or experienced, something already inscribed in memory. Whatever is novel or strange or never before experienced is excluded. Thus one searches not just for any explanation to serve as a cause, but for a specific and preferred type of explanation: that which has most quickly and most frequently abolished the feeling of the strange, new, and hitherto unexperienced in the past — our most habitual explanations. Result: one type of causal explanation predominates more and more, is concentrated into a system and finally emerges as dominant — that is, as simply precluding other causes and explanations. The banker immediately thinks of “business,” the Christian of “sin,” and the girl of her love.”

  5. Happy Skeptic says:

    Thanks for the blog and the book. Now it makes me crazy when I do catch myself doing it.
    The upside of fighting it happened when I used to work at the Farm. A girl was in a room near my desk talking loudly about ‘someone’. I complained to the girls next to me, but no-one else. The next day, I apologized because I had made an assumption (which turned out to be wrong, the ‘someone’ she was making fun of was herself). It was a good thing too, because the day before I had a conversation with her manager about something else entirely and she was lead to believe, via gossip, it was about her.
    After we both went through the initial very uncomfortable confrontation we started talking to each-other regularly and got to like one another rather well.

  6. Pingback: Cognitive Dissonance and Atheism - BNFree / Bloomington-Normal Freethinkers

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