The Heartbreak of Cognitive Dissonance: Is this terrible condition affecting someone you love?

When I learned about the gray existing between the black and white of absolute terms, I began to experience more peace. The more I expanded my gray areas (more than 50 shades), the more peace I experienced in my life.
~ David W. Earle

Do you know someone who is “black and white” on every issue? Do they refuse to be even the slightest bit flexible on an issue, even when you throw irrefutable proof of their errors right in their face? Do they continue to throw totally crazy or irrelevant arguments back at you? That someone might be suffering from (dramatic music) cognitive dissonance.

Defined by its discoverer, Leon Festinger, cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The ideas, or “cognitions,” in question may include attitudes and beliefs, the awareness of one’s behavior, and so-called facts. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people are motivated to reduce their discomfort by either changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, which I will refer to as the “reasonable approach,” or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors no matter how unreasonable they might appear to others. I’ll call the latter the “rigid approach.”

The reasonable approach can provide the sufferer with an instant cure and a way of life where cognitive dissonance is easily warded off, like being immune to a disease. The rigid approach, however, can cause all kinds of trouble, including unjustified wars, lack of response to natural disasters, disbelief of scientifically-demonstrated theories such as climate change and evolution, and fundamentalist religious beliefs. However, it also seems to provide the sufferer with at least temporary relief, by providing the belief that the sufferer is, in fact, correct.

Most brains, as they develop, face constant bombardment with one set of ideas (religious, political, scientific, artistic, always ideological), while taking in sensory information that often contradicts those ideas. I believe that cognitive dissonance involves how the brain gets wired up to handle these dilemmas. This wiring, I theorize, occurs on a continuum, ranging from what I will call “conservative rigidity” on the far right end and “liberal rigidity” on the far left end, so to speak. The owners of these brains have succumbed to the propaganda put forth by parents, teachers, clergy, etc. In each of these cases, the brain wiring forms a closed loop, constantly recycling the same talking points, scripture verses, bumper sticker clichés, and so on. As the names imply, brains on these extreme ends of the continuum, both “conservative” and “liberal,” rely heavily on the rigid approach to learning and problem-solving, and remain very difficult to change, since nothing new is allowed in.

Toward the middle of the continuum lies “centrist, or independent, flexibility.” Buddhists may recognize this as the “Middle Way.” Here, the brain owner has become aware of the contradictions described above. These brains’ wiring forms an open system, taking in all ideas, processing them with critical thinking, and producing a response that considers all points. This response might be “the heck if I know” (because uncertainty is allowed), but even this comes only after all the available data is in. Brains on this part of the continuum make use of the reasonable approach to learning and problem-solving. Typically, this does not lead to other serious conditions, but may result in minor conditions such as frequent Eye-Rolling, Head-Shaking, and/or Deep Sighs.

So, there you have it, my theory of the causes and effects of cognitive dissonance. If I ever figure out how to treat brains on the extreme ends of the continuum, I will let you know. In the meantime, if you happen to disagree with my theory, don’t bother to tell me, because I just know you’re wrong. 😉


Copyright 2015 Daniel J. Metevier