Monday, March 7, 2016

America is Sick, Part I: Cognitive Dissonance

America is sick.

I mean that there is an illness in American culture. Three years ago, I was hopeful about the future and held a positive attitude about my nation. I even wrote a newspaper column refuting those who believed the times were so woeful. But over the past two years, I have seen that belief that our society was an improvement on the past completely dissolve.

There have been three main factors in my change in attitude: The often ignorant and argumentative nature of American society, the aggravated, festering status of race relations in this country, and the US presidential race which continues to embarrass us all.
I have always wanted to solve America's ills, even when I thought they were fewer. Now, that desire to fix our society borders on obsession. And in the past month, a variety of factors have led me to a greater understanding of our collective psychological disorders.

Sadly, despite this new enlightenment, I doubt I am any closer to finding an antidote to our many poisons.

How we think
I see America, people in general, in a new and fascinating light because of Cobra Commander. That may sound crazy, but it is the truth. Cobra Commander is a fictional comic book character, the leader of the Cobra organization based on the 1980s GI Joe toys. About a month ago, I read a comic in which Cobra Commander explained the concept of cognitive dissonance to a soldier he was trying to convince to betray GI Joe.
I'll admit that I didn't really understand the Commander's speech about cognitive dissonance, so I looked it up. That's when my view of human behavior really started to expand.

Cognitive dissonance is a big pair of words that essentially mean "mental discomfort." According to Wikipedia, the technical definition is "In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values."

A good example of the concept is illustrated by the Aesop fable "The Fox and the Grapes" where a fox wants to eat some grapes hanging from a tree, but he can't reach them, so he decides that he didn't want the grapes at all, even though he obviously did. In this form, resolving cognitive dissonance is a lot like rationalizing. Oddly named, rationalizing happens when we want something to be true and then create apparently rational reasons for our emotional wants to be true.

I at first thought about these ideas in terms of my own life. I had decided I was happy with my own state in life, at a low paying job with a small audience for my writing, because I had convinced myself I didn't want to be successful, as moronic as that may seem. Another example is how I had convinced myself that I don't want a relationship because my past attempts at romance had ended so disastrously. I decided I didn't want the "sour grapes" of success or romance.

But then I thought more deeply about the subject. Cognitive dissonance is when someone believes in two contradictory beliefs, and our minds unconsciously correct that imbalance by favoring one belief over the other.

In my case, on the surface, I saw that I had resolved my desire for romantic partnership and my exhaustion with being emotionally damaged by my pursuit of romantic partnership by deciding that I no longer wanted romance. But it went far deeper than that.

When I did pursue romance, I was just that: Romantic, but to a sappy, overbearing degree. I wrote poems and songs and tended to fall very deeply in love without good reason. Conversely, I was rarely overtly sexual. This too was an example of cognitive dissonance being resolved. I grew up in a sexually regressive society in the South, and due to that and my upbringing, I resolved the conflict of my "dirty" desires with my beliefs about proper behavior by channeling my sexuality into an obsessive form of sappy romanticism.

But then, don't most people do this in some form? How many teenagers and young adults "fall in love" when a more accurate description would be "fall in lust" with each other? How many marriages were started when someone convinced themselves that they loved each other due to a pregnancy? Even a mother's love might be explained as someone feeling the same protective instincts as a mother rabbit or other animal, but rationalizing those feelings into "love" because we don't like to think of ourselves as creatures so beholden to instinct.

But we are. And if you feel uncomfortable now that I seemed to suggest your mother doesn't really love you, guess what you are experiencing? Cognitive dissonance.

But don't worry, her love is real; it's just the name we give to the instincts.

In fact, the more I thought about cognitive dissonance, I realized that only fear and instinct likely motivate us more than resolving cognitive dissonance. And the ways we handle fear and instinct seem to be intimately connected with it. We rationalize our fears. We rationalize our instincts.

When we feel embarrassed when someone brags on us, that awkwardness we feel is cognitive dissonance at someone else's words not matching our own self image. The self confident are not ashamed to be bragged on because there is no conflict.

A strange aspect of cognitive dissonance studies is that often when someone asks you to do a favor, you end up liking them more. Because you did something nice for them, you rationalize your behavior and decide that you must have liked them to do them a favor.

The opposite is also true. I experienced this recently when I ordered some pizza from a local restaurant. I tried to pay with a $100 bill, but the cashier told me they didn't accept $100 bills, so I had to leave, get change and come back. When I returned, I was more than a little annoyed, and even though she was the one who inconvenienced me, I could tell the cashier had decided she didn't like me. Rather than feel guilt for doing me wrong, I believe she decided, on some level, that I deserved it.

If you're getting a picture of what cognitive dissonance is, you're starting to understand it like I believe I do. It is shame. It is guilt. It leads to love and leads to hate. Almost everything we feel and do is related to this concept.

But one thing it does not do is lead to rational beliefs and behavior. What this all means is that we are not rational creatures at all.

Why we argue
A few months ago, on Facebook, I posted a video link of the famous evolutionary biologist Dr. Richard Dawkins explaining why creationist arguments against evolution are invalid. I now realize the resulting backlash was predictable, but it took me completely off-guard.

I spent the better part of a day arguing with people about the theory of evolution. I was shocked that people could so readily presume that their obviously emotion- and faith-based opinions superseded almost 200 years of scientific research by some of the most intelligent people to ever walk our planet.

The arguments left me disillusioned to some extent with society, and damaged my opinion of humanity as a whole. That wound in large part led to my angst and deepened desire to fix society. That too is a form of cognitive dissonance, the conflict of my idea that society should be rational with the simple fact that it isn't.

Have you ever corrected someone who said something factually incorrect? Or been corrected yourself? In a rational world we would thank someone for correcting us, but instead we want to "shoot the messenger" don't we?

If we were rational, people would be much easier to convince with facts. Because facts often create cognitive dissonance with pre-existing beliefs, it is usually only those who place value in being rational, in things making sense, that facts will convince.
Evolution is an example. Evolution is considered by the overwhelming majority of scientists to be scientific fact, but many religious people see evolution as a threat to their faith, so they desperately seek justification for their religious beliefs, because that faith is more important to them than rationality.

But it is not limited to religious beliefs. Politics is rife with cognitive dissonance-related rationalization, too.Often people like a candidate and then they find justification for their support, rather than deciding which candidate to support based on the facts. Many political beliefs are wholly irrational and I've recently learned that is to some extent by design, but that is a subject for later chapters.

People will refuse to believe their loved one committed a crime or that their husband cheated on them. People will convince themselves their lottery ticket is a winner. People allow themselves to be conned by con artists or that a psychic can see their future. All these things are evidence that many, maybe even most people value emotion over reason.

Obviously, this has a great deal to do with people's tendency to be argumentative, but let's go deeper. Even those who value reason over emotion start fights. We see something we disagree with posted on Facebook, and whether we give into the temptation or not, we want to correct people. That temptation, perhaps all temptation, is a form of cognitive dissonance.

We believe something and we see that someone else believes the opposite. Those conflicting ideas must be resolved, and though much cognitive dissonance resolution occurs internally, it often becomes externalized when we see someone else as a threat to our pre-existing beliefs. We try to convince them of what we see as the truth, and failing that, we often try to belittle our debate opponents. Sometimes it even turns to violence.

But because people tend to favor their pre-existing beliefs, argument is usually fruitless. Even people like me who value rationality, perhaps to a fault, will often resist being convinced in the midst of the argument only to later process and sometimes accept the ideas of the person with whom I was arguing.

In fact, arguments and debates I think actually increase the chance that someone will not accept someone's ideas. People see an arguer as a threat, and they become more entrenched in their own ideas. And sometimes someone arguing with you will lead you to disagree with beliefs you once agreed with. For instance, I was once sympathetic to Libertarian views until I was attacked and called a "statist" on Facebook by Libertarians for my own views, and I now see them as the type of people who say that government doesn't produce anything worthwhile on the internet created by the government.

Of course, due to specialized web sites, comments sections and social media the internet is a major problematic factor with the argumentative nature of modern society, but I will address that later.

Going back to how hard it is to convince someone, think about how hard it is to get someone to like something. Have you ever tried to introduce someone to a band or a TV show you like and encountered resistance? Only when someone wants to impress you do they readily accept suggestions for things to like, I believe.

This is some instinctual form of suspicion, I believe, and we activate that same form of defense when we argue with others. People like to "discover" things for themselves, and when they do, I think something similar happens as when someone likes someone who asked them to do them a favor. If they discover something on their own, such as someone picking up a book on evolution perhaps, they more readily accept its points because they rationalize that they must agree with its points or else why would they be reading it.

We tend to avoid reading things we know we disagree with for similar reasons, I believe, and frankly, I'm surprised you've reached this point in this essay. But there's much more to come.

To be continued.


  1. Is your view of evolution being scientific "fact" instead of theory not you rationalizing your view because you don't believe in creationism?

    In the scientific field once something is proven it becomes law not theory. There are many other possibilities that conflict with the current evolution theory, not just creationism. There are also theories that suggest different forms of life sprang up at different times and under different variables which contributed to the diversity of life. Or, how the second "LAW" (proven scientific FACT) of thermodynamics makes a very strong case against evolution. Those theories have nothing to do with creationism, but a theory that is just as valid as the other. Any real scientists, and there are true researchers out there, not just a celebrity scientist that regurgitates opinion pieces trying to pass them off as fact, knows you can't just rationalize and jump to conclusions.

    essay just seems to come off a little hypocritical and soap boxish.

  2. Thank you for sharing and helping me learn. I had never heard the creationist argument that the law of thermodynamics makes "a strong case against evolution" but I learned more about science by Googling "law of thermodynamics disputes evolution" and finding a wealth of information that says that it does not, but I won't argue with you. Feel free to do the search yourself.