by Douglas L. Anderson, PsyD
This morning I asked a colleague for a topic to write about in this article. He mentioned cognitive dissonance as a possible topic. That may not sound like a very interesting or exciting topic, and I balked at first, but then recognized it is actually a worthy topic to discuss, so please read on.
One website defined it this way. “Cognitive dissonance describes when we avoid having conflicting beliefs and attitudes because it makes us feel uncomfortable. The clash is usually dealt with by rejecting, debunking, or avoiding new information.”
Certainly we live in a period of history where some people are genuinely wrestling with cognitive dissonance, but most of us tend to be stuck in a particular view and will do whatever we need to do to avoid the discomfort that goes with considering any alternative input or information.
I loved the cartoon illustration the website used to demonstrate cognitive dissonance because it fit South Dakota so well. A stick figure in the cartoon says “animal cruelty is wrong….but also so delicious.” That’ll make any South Dakotan smile!
People who believe in God might struggle with the belief that God is good while also seeing all that is wrong in the world. How do we hold to a good God alongside the slaughter of children in Uvalde or the war in Ukraine?
Or imagine the environmentalist working to reduce climate change while still driving her F250 pulling her camper down the road for a Fourth of July weekend?
In both of those illustrations people tend to overlook one side or the other rather than wrestle with and live with the obvious dissonance. Rather than accept the discomfort, our tendency is to engage in whatever mental gymnastics are necessary to reduce the feeling or idea that different parts of our thinking are at odds with each other.
We see this in the political sphere quite commonly. Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris, both social psychologists, note that “When people feel a strong connection to a political party, leader, ideology, or belief, they are more likely to let that allegiance do their thinking for them and distort or ignore the evidence that challenges those loyalties.”
In other words, rather than listen to the views or allegiances of others, we are inclined to simply endorse anything our particular leader or party or set of beliefs says. To consider the possibility that our chosen leader or our particular belief system might be wrong on some things creates too much discomfort, and we think it is easier to just ignore, avoid, or reject anything outside the walls of the monastery of our own making.
Such actions are an effort to maintain a sense of security and self esteem, a sense of being right, a sense of being better than, and a basic sense of being psychologically okay. But such efforts betray us. At the very moment we think we have control of the situation we are actually being undermined by our effort to avoid cognitive dissonance.
If that is true, then why do we seem to strive so hard to avoid any dissonance within ourselves? There are a few likely reasons for this.
It may seem too painful to consider alternative views or alternative leaders because doing so may require us to change our views, attitudes, or loyalties. That is not easy. Lets face it, personal growth of any sort can be very difficult. And if we discover a need to change, then that also means we are losing something that up until now may have provided us with a sense of esteem or security or identity. That means loss and grief are in the mix.
Sometimes it is easier for us to hold to a view or belief because it is satisfying. The joy of driving well over the speed limit on I-90 might cause us to ignore the dissonance of breaking the law by speeding. Or the taste of a well-marbled ribeye steak might readily cause us to simply avoid reading anything written by someone who speaks out against animal cruelty.
However, when we avoid dissonance we may also miss out on new and possibly better information that could alter our beliefs and our behaviors in positive ways. When we learn to tolerate dissonance we develop an ability to be thoughtful. And thoughtfulness leads to an honest openness to all that life sends our way with a willingness to adjust our loyalties, our beliefs, our attitudes and behaviors in the direction of healthy personal growth.
Avoiding the cognitive dissonance that is normal in life contributes to the loss of thought. We may believe we are thinking for ourselves, but a person or a set of beliefs is actually controlling our thinking. When we develop the capacity to tolerate different sources of input we become critical thinkers with the ability to consider new inputs and adjust our beliefs and allegiances in healthier directions.
In short, we become more human and more humane, more thoughtful and more thankful, more considerate and more caring. We begin to appreciate and enjoy the ambiance of difference and of dissonance. The threat of difference and dissonance begins to drop away, and the pleasure of an engaged and thoughtful approach to life starts to take hold.
If you need someone to listen to you and help you work through some of your own cognitive dissonance, give us a call. River Counseling Services and Sioux Falls Psychological Services meet you where you are, offering hope. You may schedule an appointment with the Platte office at 605-337-3444, or meet with one of our Sioux Falls Psychological Services therapists from your own computer or smartphone. To schedule an appointment please call 605-334-2696.