Re-posted from 2013
By John Means
Cognitive Dissonance…….. Ugh!
Anyone who is reading this is likely aware of what Cognitive Dissonance is; or at least they think they know. If you are NOT familiar with the term then you can read all about it here, but I will give a short summary.
Cognitive Dissonance (CD) is a state of mental stress caused by being confronted with information or ideas that are contrary to ones deeply help beliefs. It can dictate a person’s behavior in many ways but the most common reactions are; ignoring the information, lashing out in anger at the information, or seeking to justify and rationalize the information. You don’t have to be a Psychologist to recognize this behavior in others, and just reading that description anyone should be able to recall not only seeing it in others, but likely having experienced it ourselves.
Many people in the ‘Awareness Movement’ are well aware of this condition and experience it in others often, but unfortunately people don’t seem so good at recognizing the condition in themselves. Most of those ‘Truthers’ and Activists seem to think that since they’ve learned a dirty little secret or two (known to millions of other as well!) that they have overcome some sort of internal block and now they no longer suffer from CD. Sadly, for many of these people, rather than gain clarity and stability from some of the harder realities in the World, instead plunge into even greater depths of CD by seeking to validate their beliefs with further justifications and illogical conclusions. (Even after dictating the principles of Algebra and Planetary Orbits, Issac Newton continued to seek a Numerical Prophecy in the much altered Bible.)
During more than a decade of research, activism and deep thought I have tried to understand CD and find ways to overcome it in others. It is NOT easy, and often flat out impossible with some people who are deeply invested in their beliefs. It can be accomplished with many people though, especially in these days of rising unrest. It just takes time, patience and practice, and the ability to suspend your own CD long enough to connect with another person.
Here are the tips and strategies I use to try and dispel CD in others. I hope they are useful to you as well.
First, and the most important thing to keep in mind at all times is this; BE AWARE OF YOUR OWN COGNITIVE DISSONANCE!
Yes, YOU have Cognitive Dissonance, we
all do. The reason we all have CD is very simple; as we learn and
grow the education, habits and other input we take in burn actual
Neural Pathways into our brains that will become the familiar route
for specific ideas to take in your mind. When confronted with
information contrary to our beliefs, habits and desires, the thoughts
cannot travel easily along the same Neural Pathway, and this triggers
a defensive mechanism in our psyche that is trying to warn us that
our thoughts are not Consonant.
This isn’t Pseudoscience, folks, it’s the way the Human Brain works, and it is being Mapped right now by Neurology Think Tanks.
It’s very possible to redirect those Neural Pathways in our brains, and people do it all the time when changing their Lifestyles (Weight Loss, Addiction, Etc,), and effectively rewire their brain to accommodate their new habits. But that is changing just one aspect of their thought patterns. For many of us who proclaim ‘Social Awareness’ or realization of ‘Truth’ it has been a long process of realizations, and each one represents a new pathway trying to be physically rerouted in our mind. It’s no wonder that it can be unhinging for many people!
Now you could go spend almost two decades in Tibet at Hindu and Buddhist Monasteries like Jesus did, and completely rewire your brain, but by the end of the process you probably won’t really care about all this bullshit (or might even resign yourself to torture and murder at the hands of angry partisans).
For those of us who recognize the need
to take action right now though, we must understand the physiology of
CD, and learn to recognize how it manifests in ourselves. Anger,
frustration, depression, and even hysterical joy can all be reactions
to CD, and we must strive to understand how it affects our perception
and actions. If a particular topic of discussion often makes you
frustrated and defensive, then you need to be able to identify it as
CD which is trying to force you to allow your ingrained thought
process to resume.
After learning to recognize the reaction in yourself, you will find it becomes easier and easier to suspend your beliefs and view an issue from a detached, almost Third Person perspective. While it does get easier to do, you will still occasionally bump into a wall of CD in your thoughts that you didn’t even realize was still there.
Now, more than a decade later, I am convinced I will never truly be able to sweep away the all cobwebs of CD from my mind, but being aware that they are there gives me a greater understanding of myself, if nothing else.
The next step in overcoming CD is to refuse to allow other people to define your responses.
This doesn’t require a great deal of explanation as it is a lesson most of our parents taught us growing up, but unfortunately most people never quite master the skill. You know damn well people are trying to get you pissed off while you’re debating sociopolitical issues; yet how often do we all give into our CD and just call people the assholes that they are? It accomplishes less than nothing, and actually serves to encourage the asshole by offering them the resistance that they seek.
Here’s the reason; to Resist an thing is to Validate and Empower that thing. I don’t often like to use metaphors as they are the highest form of rhetoric, but I find it helps to think of it as a boulder in a pathway. The boulder is blocking your path and offering no resistance, but if you try to move it, then it will use an much force as gravity allows it to resist you. You have validated the boulders position and given it the strength to resist you by attempting to move it. Often it’s easier just to walk around.
People will throw boulders and pit traps in your path during debate, and they will be expecting predictable responses. Don’t prove them right; change the narrative. Sticks and stones, my friends…
Next; let other people define the Problem and Solution.
If you’re reading this, then most likely your intent in sociopolitical activism is to effect actual change and reform to achieve a more civil, empathetic and prosperous world for everyone. I know I greatly wish that, especially for the sake of my daughters’ future, and their children to come.
That being the case, we shouldn’t be afraid to explore the possibility that we are wrong in our beliefs; after all, isn’t that what we are seeking to encourage others to consider in our activism and debate? As well, we have no reason to avoid letting other people question our conclusions, and should even encourage other people to define the flaws in your logic. Ask other people what they think. Encourage them to explain their position in more detail. Ask them what they think the ‘ultimate solution’ to the problem is.
Often you will find that a person can talk themselves out of their position if you just keep pointing out the path to them.
You’ll catch more flies with honey…..
Don’t be afraid to grease a person up a bit with some backhanded compliments. Say things like;
“Hey, you’re obviously a well educated and informed person, I don’t understand why you would support….’
‘Listen, I know a strong and independent woman like yourself has a lot of well placed values, but if you really believe….’
Most of the time it will indeed be a good and smart person you are talking to whom has a deep emotional investment in their views, just like we do. Such an acknowledgment of another person’s humanity is truthfully the most beneficial thing we could do to bridge the chasms of ideology and partisanship that separate us. The various responses you will get from people will reveal a lot about their nature, and if it’s even worth carrying on a conversation with them. You’ll have to use your own experience and judgment in that regard.
And my final tip on overcoming CD is that you should not EVER expect immediate results.
Ultimately you should view every political/debate interaction not as some fist to cuffs brawl, but as an opportunity to leave a ‘poisoned thought’ with a person which they will never forget, and will have to argue with themselves to justify for the rest of their life.
Insults are quickly forgotten and facts can be portrayed from many perspectives. What is really needed to influence another persons views in Rhetoric. Like the hook of a good song that sticks in your mind and makes you sing along. It needs to be short and to the point, just one or two sentences, and no more than 20-30 words. That is all the attention span you will get from anyone, so practice making your responses simple and concise. Save these comments, write them down, and they will be powerful tools to use over and over again.
I’m gonna leave off with two more things, not directly relative to CD, but concepts I feel have really helped me understand and interact with this crazy world more functionally.
First; DON’T LET PEOPLE CHANGE THE SUBJECT!
Once the subject is changed and you accept it, you have lost the debate, period. Stay on point with your argument.
And finally, I want to share a few thoughts and a quote from Bruce Lee. And while these ideas seem physical in nature, they are actually thought processes that take a great deal of practice to use effectively, and they very much apply to reasoning and debate as well.
Bruce Lee’s Martial Art is called Jeet Kune Do, which translates to ‘The Art of the Intercepting Fist (or Foot)’. One of the core principles of this Art is that all interaction represents opportunity. So, for example, if an opponent is throwing a kick or punch at you and your intent is to block it aside, then do not just deflect the blow, but make your action a strike at the incoming limb.
This duality of motion applies in other ways too, and in a particular video Bruce demonstrates how to make motions fluid by throwing a kick and a punch at the same time, not as two different motions, but as one single motion. I would encourage you to try it, not like some kung fu master, but minimally as a mental excessive, and see just how difficult it is. It is entirely a process of thought before it can ever be achieved, and while I wouldn’t claim to be good at it, it is an exercise that I feel has improved my mental and physical reflexes over the years.
One of my favorite quotes from Bruce is this (paraphrasing)….
“Be like water. Water can flow, or it can crash. If you pour water into a cup, it becomes the cup. If you pour water into a vase it becomes the vase… Be like water, my friends.” – Bruce Lee
It may seem like some hooky metaphysical nonsense to a lot of people; but it is a a simple philosophy worthy of some thought, and you will find many applications for it if you keep those words in mind.
Well, those are my thoughts on Cognitive Dissonance, and I hope the ideas here are useful to you in debate and activism.
Don’t be afraid to engage, my friends. Strive to seek understanding and reject partisanship. Suspend your belief and shed your Isms.
We’re all in this together.