No One Knows What Cognitive Dissonance Means

Artwork: Vampier | Edvard Munch

There are a number of things I find very frustrating. I have issues. But one of the things I find most mind-numbingly blood-nosingly irritating is concepts like Cognitive Dissonance (hereafter CD.)

Not the concept itself; CD is a real thing and it’s something that any human could use a basic understanding of. Somehow, by some bizarre miracle, it managed to become a buzzword.

But the way it is used in everyday speech is completely off and seems to promote the very sort of ignorance which CD might help us to prevent.

To hear the average Facebook user tell it, Cognitive Dissonance is something stupid people do when they get proven wrong. These people never consider the possibility that they too are suffering from CD. Often while they are pointing it out in others.

That’s because everyone – every single damn one of us – experiences CD. We experience it all day. It is one of the main actors in how we take in new information.

So What is Cognitive Dissonance Really?

I have even heard some people talk as if it were some sort of mental illness. Which is not the case. We all experience dissonance and ease in our cognition.

Things which we are familiar with and which we feel we have a pretty good handle on tend to give us positive feelings. Things which confuse us or make us feel powerless tend to cause discomfort.

That discomfort is referred to by psychologists as cognitive dissonance. Slight pangs of discomfort and ease are part of every single thought that we have.

It makes a lot of sense for cave people, if you think about it. When you need to solve a problem and you could do so a number of ways, why not choose the way that you are more familiar with?

You make this sort of decisions without literally thinking through your capabilities. Your brain gives things you’re good at and concepts you already know a slight edge and discourages you from trying things that you’re likely to fail at.

However, when it comes to less practical matters, where it’s not so easy to assess success or failure, this same little trigger can be a problem. As with so many things, our modern world tends to give us situations that our biology is not set up to handle.

In this case, people spend a lot more time thinking about abstract concepts than simple physical tasks. As a result our cognitive biases tend to prevent us from seeking new information unless it is blatantly obvious we are wrong.

When it comes to issues like relationships and politics and religion and science people have an innate tendency to avoid the type of constant rethinking that the truth requires.

Once you have had an idea for a long time and are used to thinking about things in certain terms, it can literally be painful to explore new options.

To think about a familiar thing in a different way can feel like slamming on the brakes while in a freight train and making a sharp turn.

Your mind keeps slipping into your old way of thinking and when you correct it, you get a mild zap of discomfort. We are literally Pavloved into ignorance by our own biology.

The Usefulness of Cognitive Dissonance

The result of all this is people seeing cognitive dissonance in others while still remaining completely blind of it themselves.

If you are familiar with something and are watching someone else struggle with it, it may feel as though they are brainwashed. They begin getting irritable and walk right around the evidence back to their old views.

The solution is to ignore it in other people. There’s really no upside to adopting psychological language just to call people stupid. You can just call them stupid if you need to.

But when we’re examining ourselves the concept is vital if we hope to continue learning past our initial vague notions. Watch out for things that make you cringe or want to change the subject.

And when you need to examine new ideas try and look at them as stories. You’re making believe, playing a role. Practice arguing random positions you don’t believe.

You don’t have to be weird about it. Use the phrase “for the sake of argument.” It works wonders. Or declare yourself an advocate for the devil.

Beyond that the easiest way to cope with cognitive discomfort is to recognize that it’s okay not to have 100% beliefs on every little thing. Most things are much more complicated than we make them. There are often several causes for things.

You can explore a new idea and then go right back to the old one. No one is holding a gun to your head and demanding that you state your ultimate belief on the matter. People don’t know all sorts of things and they get by just fine.

And if some asshat tells you that you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance, admit it. That’s the correct response to cognitive dissonance. And chances are that you are to some extent.

You are like everyone else. And the fact that they’re being so snotty hints that they might have a rather acute case of it right now.

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