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.