The Humbug of Humbugs: Cognitive Dissonance

Have you ever seen an article about some new discovery and thought to your self “There’s no way that’s true!”? If that’s the case, you may be suffering from cognitive dissonance. It’s very common, somewhat complex and probably everyone has had some dealing with it.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term used to describe the mental discomfort of someone faced with a contradiction of perceptions. The mind alters the constraints of the situation to ease the discomfort. This can come in a variety of forms. Belief disconfirmation occurs when a person’s strong held beliefs are challenged with new information, resulting in unwarranted discrediting of the information in order to maintain the previous world view. Induced compliance happens when a person is forced to do something they may not want to, and thus the mind alters the perception of the task to justify its completion. Free choice is a form of cognitive dissonance which eases the choice in a difficult decision. When choosing between two possible gifts of equal perceived value a person may place a higher value on the chosen gift after making the choice even though it was arbitrary. Finally effort justification takes place when one voluntarily takes part in a strenuous activity for a specified end result. The reward is then exaggerated to justify the effort gone through to achieve it. All of these are incredibly interesting and deeply complex, but the one I’m interested most in telling you about it the first. Belief disconfirmation hinders on a daily basis scientific advancement, interpersonal relations and general betterment of the world.

Have you ever watched a science vs. religion debate and wondered how someone can continually deny overwhelming evidence with what seems to be made up ideas? While the obvious conclusion may be an ulterior motive (and don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it sometimes is), it can also be chalked up to cognitive dissonance. Someone is so uncomfortable by the notion of a change in the accepted reality that they unconsciously discredit anything which opposes it. This leads to fallacious arguments, exaggerations and sometimes simply untrue or made up arguments. Things like religion, politics, or climate change are the most common instances of belief disconfirmation. In some cases this can be harmless, but on a bigger scale it can set back or even stop progress of important issues. It can be to the point that a person can not be convinced regardless of what evidence they are presented with, and when that person has influence over a large group of people that cognitive dissonance quickly spreads.

So how can you avoid becoming a victim of cognitive dissonance? Honestly, it’s difficult. I often catch my self doing it, or look back on a situation and realize I did. But the most important part of avoiding it is knowing about it. Any time you catch your self doubting some new information, take a step back and ask your self if this is maybe what’s going on. Now, this new hypothetical information may actually be false. It’s possible (and why it’s always important to check your sources), but not always the case. Let’s face it, change is scary. I hate change and it can be difficult to accept. But if we’re to grow as individuals and as a whole then we need to do our best to get past it and move on. I strongly urge everyone to research and learn more about cognitive dissonance.


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