With the arrival of our new commander in chief, political, religious, or philosophical beliefs that were once considered taboo are now scattered throughout the masses on a daily basis. If you have been living under a rock for the past few months, just take a look at basically any source of media and you will see what I’m talking about. Conservatives and liberals are arguing about abortion laws, Christians and Atheists are going head to head regarding the separation of church and state, and just about everyone is giving their opinion on the choices made by our new President – Donald Trump.
It is a very controversial time to be an American. With all this constant bickering one has to wonder, “Is any of this doing our people any good?” In response, I believe it depends completely on whether or not you are one of the billions trapped in the psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance theory was developed by Leon Festinger and basically states that people want to keep believing what they are believing. Our cognitions and our actions can have three types of relationships with each other, a consonant relationship, an irrelevant relationship, or a dissonant relationship. Consonant relationships put our mind at ease. We believe that smoking kills, so we don’t smoke. It’s as simple as that. Irrelevant relationships are just that – irrelevant. We believe smoking kills, and we happen to get a smoothie. There is no problem here because the two concepts are not related. However, a dissonant relationship can cause some major problems. Someone may believe that smoking kills, but they are addicted to their habit so they continue with the action anyway.
A dissonant relationship creates psychological stress that is often described being as powerful as our drive for hunger or lust. If the dissonance is not dealt with, an individual will become more and more aggravated. How does one go about reducing dissonance? Festinger proposed four possible routes.
- Change the behavior or belief – (“I will stop smoking.)
- Justify the behavior or belief by modification – (“I can have a cigarette every once and a while.”)
- Justify the behavior or belief by adding new beliefs – (“I’ll start eating healthier and exercising so I can keep smoking.”)
- Ignore or deny information that is dissonant to existing beliefs – (“Smoking isn’t actually bad for me.”)
From there we create social categories by which to label which groups agree or disagree with our beliefs. This takes the form of race, sex, gender, age, political affiliation, or religion. That way we can simply disregard certain beliefs only on the basis of separation. In our minds it somehow makes sense that information shared by a liberal, conservative, Christian, Atheist, or any other group with which we disagree is automatically incorrect because it is being said by a member of that group. The reality is that truth is truth regardless of who believes it.
So how should someone respond to dissonant information? I hope the solution is obvious. If you feel a stressful tension arise from within when an individual says or does something that you don’t agree with, just a take a second to breathe. Be a better person and set your emotions to the side so you have room to process the situation logically. Ask yourself, “What is the reason that I feel this way?” “If I respond emotionally, will it help clear up the issue or will it cause dissonance to spread?” “Are my current beliefs misplaced?” Analyze your emotions, do research into whatever topic is bothering you, and try to come to a better understanding of both your own mind and the mind of the individual with which you are in a conversation. The better we understand each other the quicker we will be able to resolve conflicts.
Oh, and one more thing. Don’t expect immediate change within yourself or others. Our brains are a complex network of neurons and some of those connections take constant work before finally breaking down. On top of that, new beliefs take constant reinforcement before they become truly grounded in your mind. Take time out of your day to decide what you believe for yourself. And don’t forget, you are in control of your actions. Make the best out of them.
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.