Discussing Cognitive Dissonance
Upon starting to read a new novel, ‘The Good Girl’ by Fiona Neill, I stumbled across a phrase that immediately caught my loving-snazzy-sounding-phrases sort of attention. Right there on page six is where I saw it and, in turn, how the idea for this article began.
Cognitive dissonance, described by the author as being ‘the ability to hold contradictory thoughts about the same subject’, from what I could gauge insofar, was a reference to the mental tug-of-war that we seem to encounter when entering certain topics or areas of thought. As a person who is inclined to think a lot I knew as soon as I read the phrase from Neill’s book that this was something that probably applied to me.
I decided to conduct a little bit of research nonetheless after hearing what few words her book had to say on the matter because although it would likely hold some accuracy, as far as I knew Neill wasn’t a psychologist. I visited simplypsychologist.org to check for consistency within the definition, which was supported by the website saying that the phrase ‘refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors’. The website then went on to further detail how ‘this produces a feeling of mental discomfort, leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance’ (S1).
For those of you who have read my article ‘Human Overload’, you may remember how I prefaced how I was definitely not a psychologist either and, to break the news to you gently, I am still never going to be. I am merely a person like you with a passion for words and exploring the mind.
When I thought of cognitive dissonance after knowing how it was defined in both of those instances, my ‘attitudes, beliefs or behaviors’ regarding two main areas that can somewhat interlink seemed to arise. First and foremost, of course, was the concept of existence in relation to having a divinely received or self-granted “purpose”. I’m fascinated by philosophy and I’m a person that does their best to remain not necessarily overly optimistic, but rather realistic without dipping into becoming too cynical. I like to believe that humans are here for a reason other than solely because they were given birth to and will remain around until the cycle of life results in inevitable demise but, at the same time, it’s something that my mind definitely conflicts over at times. The best way that I can think to describe the feeling of cognitive dissonance in action within your head is, as the psychology website stated, in a fluctuating balance. Imagine a double-ended scale with either side containing one of two conflicting thoughts; in this case, one side would be stating that human beings have a purpose whereas the other would be saying that we exist purely because of the likes of Darwin’s ‘Natural Selection’.
Both sides of the scale, as we know, hold viable arguments held by different people, meaning that this topic is one which has the grounds for causing debate and conflict. Just because you hold a belief doesn’t mean that it’s indecisive for your mind to change or to occasionally imbalance while pondering what it’s like to be on the other side. Doing so may cause discomfort as you’re in a state of questioning against what you previously believed but after some time your brainwaves will calm down again, restore a less chaotic stance and eventually the conflicting thoughts will fade away as your mind moves on to think about something else.
I believe that it’s normal and a part of human nature to experience cognitive dissonance. In fact, arguably, it’s actually a good thing. It shows that we aren’t just creatures who accept everything at face value and that we have the capacity to want to extend our minds into realms of further perception and comprehension. The importance of questioning the world around us dates far back into history, with one of the most known examples of it coming from Plato’s ‘Republic’ (514a-520a) via the telling of ‘The Allegory of the Cave’. His story presents us with the circumstance of prisoners trapped inside of a dark cave lit only by the light of a fire. The prisoners are chained up facing the wall and have been kept that way since birth, meaning that they have never had the opportunity to see the outside world. Occasionally someone would walk past the fire, causing shadows of the people and the objects that they were carrying to project onto the cave walls. Over time the prisoners adopted the belief that these projections were more than shadows, but rather that they were “real things”.
One day one of the prisoners managed to break free. He was curious and after discovering that there was so much more to the world, such as the sun and true physical things, he went back to tell the other prisoners about what he had witnessed. The prisoners reprimanded him for his tales and thought that he was crazy, refusing to believe that there could be anything other than what they had seen inside of the cave walls.
If the escaped prisoner had not questioned everything that he had known before he would have never learned that there was more to life. And, similarly, if we don’t allow our cognitive balance to tip sometimes then we may end up like the prisoners, ignorant to the possibility that there could be something more to a thought, feeling or belief.
Imbalance, of course, produces discomfort, especially when it’s in regards to something such as purpose or love (my second interlinking area) which doesn’t hold a concrete answer. At times our minds may shift in one way to try to resettle and at other times they may shift towards the opposite side to try to rekindle their sense of centrality. It’s complex and, like anything complex, it’s not the easiest to mentally deal with. I can’t tell you that your thoughts are always going to be easy to figure out or sit with because I know that wouldn’t be true, and I can’t sit here and say that I entirely understand how the likes of cognitive dissonance operate because I don’t. What I will say, however, is that it’s not abnormal, and I can say that, with practice, we can learn to better recognise signs of it within ourselves in order to attempt to notice it or use it to our personal advantage.
For example, in the case of love and relationships, many beliefs can be held about them, but for the sake of this discussion I shall narrow it down to two blunts. We could view love as life’s purpose: as something beautiful, divine and as the ultimate extension of what it means to feel, to connect and to be human. However, on the contrary, we could also view “relationships” as a partially societal construction to help human beings to more adequately or efficiently cohabitate, relieve biological desires and to repopulate the Earth whilst simultaneously using the vise of “romance” to attempt to fill the blank void of nothingness that the planet potentially alludes to. Those are clearly differing ends of a spectrum, and there’s nothing wrong with deliberating over them both or using the latter thought as even more of a justification to love fully and endlessly. If the world is a “blank void of nothingness”, isn’t that all the better reason to fill it with warmth?
It’s up to us and our minds to decide how we want to view conflicting ideas but so long as we know that it’s alright to feel this way then I believe that the prospect feels a little more approachable.
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