hide in bed in fear

photo by Alexandra Gorn

Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort that results from holding in mind two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. We experience this phenomenon in small ways fairly often – almost every time we incorporate new and surprising information. Human beings struggle with cognitive dissonance because we don’t like ambiguity; we prefer certainty and we like things to be clear. Somewhere deep inside our survival oriented brains, uncertainty equals danger. So, our knee jerk response to the uncomfortable mental friction of cognitive dissonance is to avoid, escape or obliterate it.

It’s also very challenging for certainty loving humans to adopt new ways of thinking and being when we’re confronted with information that interrupts ingrained habits or challenges long-held world views. It’s perhaps the most difficult for us when something challenges how we see ourselves. With the global pandemic and increased social unrest, we are watching this play out in front of us in real time every day. We see how many people will distort or reject evidence that challenges their strongly held convictions.

In addition to our aversion to uncertainty (as well as the unfortunate reality that we are living in a “post-fact” era) our resistance to change happens for a number of reasons. Here in the US, we tend to be very harsh critics of our own mistakes and we watch others being lambasted in the media when they err. So, it’s no wonder we are averse to being wrong. We equate changing our minds with being wishy washy or weak. To some, being mistaken feels like a social death sentence.

Another complicating factor is that our human brains are vulnerable to a number of illusions. One such illusion is the sunk cost fallacy – believing that investments justify future expenditures. In other words, the more of ourselves we’ve poured into a particular view or way of being, the harder it is to let go of it, even though it may no longer serve us. The harder we try to justify our mistakes in the face of contradictory evidence, the more we feel we have no other choice than to dig our heels in deeper. To do otherwise would be to admit we’ve been mistaken, and our culture of shame means that we are also a culture that is averse to blame.

Part of this also has to do with our closely held ideas about loyalties and allegiances. There’s a pop song by Train called Drops of Jupiter about an important friendship that goes: “Can you imagine no love, pride, deep-fried chicken? Your best friend always sticking up for you – even when I know you’re wrong?” For many in our mainstream culture, to disagree is to become an enemy. So, in order to be a good family member, friend or supporter, we think we have to stand behind our loved ones’ and allies’ problematic behavior and decisions.

There was an interesting article recently in the Atlantic about cognitive dissonance. The author cited some fascinating experiments designed to find ways to reduce the long-standing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. They took peace proposals created by Israeli negotiators, labeled them as Palestinian proposals, and then asked Israeli citizens to judge them. The Israelis liked the Palestinian proposal attributed to Israel more than they liked the Israeli proposal attributed to the Palestinians. The content mattered less than who they believed created it. Seeing it this way likely decreased their cognitive dissonance at the expense of truth.

Mindfulness can help us be with dissonance so we might make the most informed decisions we can and modify them when evidence dictates through:

  • developing greater awareness of and openness to whatever is arising
  • expanding our window of tolerance for uncomfortable feelings, such as dissonance and uncertainty, so we can examine our experience
  • cultivating compassion for and forgiveness of ourselves and others when mistakes are made
  • helping us see thoughts as just thoughts, so we aren’t confused by false narratives and illusions

It might be a useful exercise to explore cognitive dissonance in meditation. After anchoring yourself in the present moment and cultivating a feeling of groundedness through the senses, call to mind a time when something you thought was true was challenged. Maybe your view of someone was changed by something they did. Maybe advances in science or technology altered your understanding. Maybe the addition of previously unheard voices changed your learning of your history. Maybe you discovered you were misled by someone. Whatever you choose, when you have it firmly in mind, notice any associated body sensations, thoughts, feelings and urges that arise around it with a gentle curiosity. Also be sure to offer yourself some compassion for any discomfort you experience, reminding yourself that cognitive dissonance is part of the human experience. You might also connect in with some appreciation for your own courage and willingness to explore uncomfortable truths and offer a wish for the same for others. In this way you may notice a greater capacity for facing dissonance when it arises so that you have more agency in how you respond to it.

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