“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.” – Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
Humans’ brains have the capability to take facts and interpret them as realities and occurring scenarios in the world, which is a characteristic unique only to human species and distinct from any other living organism. Ideas, thoughts, facts or any other piece of knowledge is called cognition; all humans have the ability to retain cognitions on a constant basis since we have the ability to retain and store information in our brains, which is known as memory. Once cognitions are truly accepted and known, they become beliefs in us that are guided by supporting evidence of their truth. Some examples of cognitions are that cakes are tasty and delicious; this cognition is true because we all know and have experience the tastiness of cakes’ flavours. Other cognition examples are that money is valuable, since we all know that it takes hard work to earn it, and one last example presenting that food is vital for our survival, seeing that if we do not eat we would starve and die during a specific time period.
These cognitions are widely accepted by humans as facts because they are supported by real-world scenarios and their value in society. These types of cognitions are consonant cognitions, because they represent true facts and are constant in belief throughout pretty much all of our lives. However, problems arise when any type of cognition conflicts with its truth, which is a scenario that happens quite frequently to every human being. One example of a conflicting cognition would be to know the true fact that marrying some else is beneficial but the conflict arises in the possible belief that the marriage might fail due to a diverse number of reasons. These two pieces of conflicting ideas holding the standard belief that marriage is beneficial and never fails are what is called cognitive dissonance, the process of holding two conflicting ideas based on one true fact while the other idea presents a conflict arguing that the true fact might not be entirely true and can be possibly better or worse depending on the type of belief and dissonance.
Humans may experience many cognitive dissonances on a wide number of subjects every day of our existence. They can range from simple dissonances about eating breakfast or not to eat breakfast because it is fattening, or to complex dissonances that impact your life, such as taking a new job or raising a family and focusing on the pros and cons of each. Even though our brains process thousands or probably millions of thoughts and ideas that have dissonances in a short period of time, most people out there do not take the time to really grasp and think about those thoughts and their dissonances, which is an important step in guiding ourselves to prevent the negative impact that dissonances can have on us and thereby trying to completely eliminate them. Most people try to avoid whenever a dissonance comes in their heads and thereby stay focused on the main belief, learning to accept dissonances and risking to try them out can be a challenging but doable process.
“Ultimately, everything depends on the quality of the individual.” – Carl Jung.
Let’s consider one of the most common cognitive dissonances that a large portion of adolescents and high school students face every year, which is the cognition of going to college to study a subject and thereby increasing the chances to have a stable and productive career throughout life, versus the dissonance that whether or not going to college might be worth it in the end taking into consideration the costs, efforts and sacrifices that each student has to give and commit. The key of this issue lies on the fact of a dissonance based on a life-changing decision and its future impact; surely going to college to obtain a degree will open doors for future career opportunities but not going to college may leave you with unstable and low paying jobs in the long run.
Another way of thinking about this issue is to value the opportunity costs of going to college and real world examples based on the results that people obtained by either going to college or not, the dissonance can now take another course by basing the fact that college is not worth it and that you might be ending up in a regular job, thereby putting more value on the belief that by not going to college and pursuing another career or goal might be more beneficial and successful in the long run for your future. The belief can be supported by real world examples of wealthy and highly successful people that accomplished great results by not enrolling in college and doing other things.
At this stage, the adolescent can feel an intense frustration in not knowing what to do and from this point the negative impact on humans from cognitive dissonance begins its course. Possible negative impacts from taking these types of decisions based on hopeful or true beliefs can be depression, lack of confidence, untrustworthiness, ambivalence and other actions that somehow are harmful to the individual depending on the severity of the dissonance.
The impact can also be seen on the cost of medical research to find potential treatments to alleviate the frustration that some people might feel during cognitive dissonance. Other serious impacts include the lack of productivity, critical thinking, and risk taking in the individual’s life.
According to Jung (1958), our society is dominated by mass-mindedness which comprises of de-based individuals and de-individualized persons. As de-based individuals experience validation only when mass-mindedness is adhered to, they are unable to find their own voice or real justification for their existence. Under this condition, weakness and helplessness clutches the individual producing a mental dissociation with two opposing mindsets, i.e., a cognitive dissonance. Jung further adds that mentally dissociated persons are prone to neurotic disturbance, and mass-mindedness is ripe for conquest by a dictatorial, totalitarian or oppressive regime.
When mentally dissociated persons are forced to deceive themselves, they eventually become beside themselves. Evans (2002) has indicated that constant parental defining produces a backward identity in children, i.e., identity constructed from outside-in rather than inside-out. Individuals with this type of identity are unable to tolerate differences and experience high-levels of anxiety when faced with diversities. Such traits are common among controlling personalities, bullies or obedient characters that have a tendency to police others.
Havel (1990) who was the first president of Czech Republic has stated:
“The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships […]”
Ultimately, any society has the right to protect itself from dangerous, pathological or rebellious subjectivism. However, Snow (1961, as cited in Milgram, 1975) raises an interesting point related to obedience:
“When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion […] “(p.4)
Finally, cognitive dissonance can have long lasting negative and positive impact. It can be used to raise our awareness and question out-dated personal views or it can create conflicting ideas that, if unresolved, further widen the divergence between what we feel and what we need or can say within an expanding politically-correct world.
© Robert Mijas 2012
Evans, P. (2002). Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You. Avon, MA: Adams Media.
Jung, C. (1958). The Undiscovered Self. London, UK: Routledge.
Milgram, S. (1975). Obedience to Authority. Yale University Press.
Havel, V. (1990). ‘New Year’s Address to the Nation’. Retrieved from, http://old.hrad.cz/president/Havel/speeches/1990/0101_uk.html
This article appears in Miscellany of Topics 1 e-book.