Cognitive Dissonance: Dealing With Yours

If you’ve read any of my posts, you will quickly realize that I’m not highly edumacated. That doesn’t mean I don’t like intellectual challenges. I’m curious about a great many things, but I tend to lack depth of understanding because I’m simply not disciplined enough to work hard at anything, especially learning. Nevertheless, I like to talk about stuff and I don’t need a doctorate to do so.

Psychology (and more recently the more “technical” cognitive sciences) has always intrigued me. I fondly remember my ‘tween years, perusing the Intro to Psychology section of my single-volume Random House Color Encyclopaedia and being convinced I was afflicted by fully 3/4 of the mental illnesses it described. Good times. Anyway, over the last year, this concept of cognitive dissonance has been itching my brain.

For the uninitiated, an example[1] to illustrate. Assume the following are two statements made by the same person:

“I’m a law-abiding person.”

“I download Hollywood movies from torrentz sites like[2]”

Do you see the conflict between these two statements? If you don’t, you are a fucking idiot and/or you’ve arrived at cognitive consonance through some deft mental manoeuvring, aka rationalization.

Perhaps your rationalization involved some lame excuses such as, “The Hollywood-industrial complex is bilking consumers out of millions”, “I can’t afford it”, “movies, like information, software, games, art, and beer, should be free”, etc…

Whatever the case, you are able to justify to yourself a behavior (statutory theft, which is what it is whether you agree with that law or not) that conflicts with your purported beliefs (that you don’t break the laws of your jurisdiction).

We do a lot of this excuse-making on a daily basis. So much so that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. If we were to stop and analyze the motives behind most of our actions, we might uncover a rather unpleasant truth. But we don’t do that. Because we need to do X, Y, Z, because <excuses> (“I need to survive”, “I have a family to support”, “it’s for the common good”, “to protect democracy”, blah blah blah).

And this excuse-making, we do it both individually and collectively, and there are always those who will seek to leverage this. (And no, this isn’t a conspiracy blog, sorry to disappoint!)

The unpleasant truth is most of our actions and choices are based on what’s most convenient. If we can be honest with ourselves about that, then hopefully we’re in a better position to honestly question ourselves, at least as far as such a thing is possible.

“I recognize that I am making the expeditious choice, but at what cost? To me? To others?”

When someone challenges you on your beliefs or your motivations and an answer is on your lips in 0.2s instead of 0.5, check yourself. Is that rationalization cached somewhere? Where does it come from? You? Your peers? Society? Does it need to be reviewed? Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

The theory of cognitive dissonance was first expounded in Leon Festinger’s aptly titled A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. I have not read it, because tl;dr, reasons, etc. 😉 But I highly recommend it to others!

Footnote 1: For a more neutral example, see Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Grapes.

Footnote 2: At the time of this writing, is not a real site, but feel free to report back if it becomes one.

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