Wikipedia defines Cognitive Dissonance as
“a personal discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions simultaneously.”
In layman’s terms, this means that it is uncomfortable for people to have two beliefs which contradict each other. Continues Wikipedia,
“The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions or adding new ones to create a consistent belief system.“
In other words, it is commonly documented that people will actively work to keep themselves from believing new information if it poses a conceptual threat to their existing perception of reality.
This is a phenomenon that we observe all the time.
Have you ever noticed that people are extremely open-minded when you’re not in the realm of “belief-system subjects” like politics or religion? You can tell people crazy, radical information and they are totally open to it.
“Did you know that there’s a guy who ran a half-marathon by himself, in the snow-covered Tundra of the Arctic Circle while barefoot and shirtless?”
“Wow, dude! that’s incredible, it’s so amazing what people can do!”
(true story, btw. See the video here)
You can tell people stuff like this with no cited sources, no credentials attached to your name, and no proof whatsoever that it’s a real story. Yet they are open to hearing the information. Why?
Well…why not? It’s just information. There is no need for defensiveness.
But consider offering some moderately convincing information on an opinion-heavy subject like US military operations.
“Did you know that Afghanistan produces 92% of the world’s opium supply? I wonder if our military leaders might have some ulterior motives for keeping our troops there…”
(true story, again. Read about it here)
“No, dude. We are hunting terrorists. Those troops are protecting your freedom. You should be ashamed of saying something like that!”
In this situation, the information being presented is largely factual. The questioner’s suspiciousness is not illogical, yet it challenges the other person’s belief-system. Because it is fairly intuitive logic, it threatens to give the person a belief which is not congruent with a preexisting one.
The military is noble and altruistic, vs. military leaders is corrupt and non-transparent.
Presenting information like this puts the “military-supporter” in a state of cognitive dissonance. I would argue that this is actually the main reason why people get defensive when you present challenging information on issues like politics and religion. It’s not the subjects themselves, but the heavy belief-systems associated with them.
Presenting unconvincing information, on the other hand, does not have the same effect- even if it is equally challenging of their belief systems.
“Did you know that the US military actually went to Iraq to steal Iraqi goats for their milk?!”
“Good theory, boss. You should write a letter to CNN.”
In this example, there is no dissonance, no compulsion to argue. Why? Because there is no threat of taking on an incongruent belief.
Why does this matter?
The whole point of cognitive dissonance theory- the only reason that it has received any kind of attention- is the curiously strong impulse that we all have to avoid it. Why is it such a big deal? Why do people freak out and start arguing so fervently when some potentially convincing dissonant information comes along?
Allow me to offer my speculative explanation
Most of us identify very strongly with our thinking mind. In fact, many of us equate the “thinking voice in our head,” with who we are. Most famously, Rene Descartes asserted, “I think; therefore I am.“
But consider this: if we believe that the thinking voice is who we are… then what would be implied by a state of cognitive dissonance?
In a state of cognitive dissonance, our thinking mind is discredited. If we believe p and not p simultaneously, then something is obviously wrong. It undermines the very assumption that our mind is valid. To someone who is identified with their thinking, it implies that they are not valid. And THAT is why you find people arguing so fervently.
You are not your mind
You are not the thinking voice in your head. Rather, you are the consciousness which hears the thinking voice.
When we realize who are, we can de-identify from the thinking mind. We continue to use it as a tool, but no longer mistake it for our identify.
Thus, when convincing, dissonant information comes along, we can process it clearly- without defensiveness.
And, when we find ourself in a place of cognitive dissonance, we can calmly reevaluate things, rather than automatically trying to disprove the new information.
I believe we could all grow a lot intellectually if we spent some time considering this concept.
Are you the thinking voice? Or are you the one hearing that thinking voice?