Thursday, July 4, 2013

205. What is cognitive dissonance?

In response to a recent column I wrote about Rob Portman’s change of perspective on gay marriage, a reader wrote to me and noted that it was a case of “cognitive dissonance.” As these things sometimes work out, I was thinking about that psychological conflict when I saw a tweet from someone who noted that a greyhound rescue group was raising money by having a “meat raffle.”  He termed it as “cognitive dissonance defined.”

I’ve often used the word “disconnected” to describe the situation in which competing ideologies are not consistently considered. However, I realized that this isn’t completely correct. Disconnected applies in the sense that there is a lack of connection between two ideologies or when there is a failure in the understanding of one or both ideologies. But when there is understanding of the competing ideologies, and yet there is an inconsistency between beliefs and actions, the proper term is “cognitive dissonance.”

Cognitive dissonance is really about conflict and the anxiety that results when “simultaneously holding contradictory or incompatible beliefs.”  This, of course, is manifested in the inconsistency in one’s beliefs and actions—such as Portman suddenly supporting gay marriage.

The difference between cognitive dissonance and being disconnected is subtle, and not mutually exclusive. Being disconnected may be a result of a lack of understanding, and therefore, without the recognized conflict necessary for cognitive dissonance.

When such a conflict arises, and it is not necessarily unusual to have competing cognitions, how is it resolved?

As referenced in Wikipedia, “The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.”

In a famous Aesop tale “The Fox and the Grapes” a fox comes across some grapes he wants to eat but cannot reach them. To resolve the conflict, of wanting the grapes, but finding them unattainable, the fox rationalizes that the grapes are probably sour or bad and does not want them. He reduced his internal conflict by criticizing it and altering the existing cognition.

Like the tweeter I mentioned, I recall a similar experience with cognitive dissonance and an animal rescue group. The group was organizing a golf outing in which the dinner included steak. I wrote the director about the conflicting ideologies—how could they be killing one animal to save another? I asked if it really would be too much to ask that supporters of the animal rescue group give up their steak for one day.

The director of that group used a different sort of justification and noted that we live in “a largely rural, agricultural-based county” and that this was “a pragmatic decision.”  He tried to turn the cognition into sour grapes—the end justifies the means?

The resolution of cognitive dissonance is basically an exercise in reconciling conflict. And disconnect is a practical, although sometimes dishonest, approach.

This approach is highlighted by Jonathan Saffron Foer, author of Eating Animals, and blogger Mark Hawthorne in the debate over eating meat.

Foer notes that “disconnect” is easier than facing the cognitive conflict created in the desire to eat meat. “We have such a resistance to being hypocrites that we would rather be fully ignorant and fully forgetful all the time,” he wrote.

Likewise, Hawthorne explains, “One theory of cognitive dissonance holds that it is not the result of people experiencing dissonance between opposing cognitions; instead, it surfaces when people view their actions as conflicting with their self-image. For the meat-eater, this means not wanting to see themselves as contributing to animal abuse; they would rather not hear the truth than think they are selfish and cruel.”

For many, cognitive dissonance is about getting through the moment. It is the rationalization and justification that finishes the sentence, “I know it’s wrong, but . . . “

Life is full of competing values and difficult decisions. The value of cognitive dissonance is not in exposing hypocrisy, rather it is about learning something about ourselves—our beliefs and values—and considering and realizing some sense of consistency.

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