As the theory of cognitive dissonance says, we all struggle when our opinions are challenged with contrasting evidence. I am fond of repeating neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor’s assertion that ‘Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think’. And, quite usually, we pay far more attention to our feelings than to our reasoning.
The peril of our status as feeling creatures is, as Daniel Dennett put it, that each of us is the ‘center of narrative gravity’ – the hero of our own story, as David Copperfield put it at the outset of his odyssey.
In short, the world is about me, or, all too often, ME! The kindest way to put this is that we each have our own perspective; the least kind that we are blind to our own folly. Both statements are true, but our self-righteousness easily outweighs our humility, and so hobbles our reasoning.
This might sound like a sermon or a self-help book, but these ideas are supported by decades of replicated scientific experiments.
Cognitive dissonance tells us that we automatically reject anything that disagrees with our opinions. Contradiction makes us strongly assert our existing belief against all the evidence.
Since these ideas were developed in the early 1950s, they have been tried and tested thousands of times, but we still manage to resist Leon Festinger’s insight, and fail to teach our children to put aside their emotional preferences when making important decisions.
How can we learn to calmly recognise the bias of our own thinking? The first step is learning to check our opinions carefully and to recognise the emotional dissonance: if I defend myself too quickly or too sharply, it usually means that a sore spot has been touched. It is as if my nerve endings are now connected to those ideas, and words that go against them feel like barbs.
If some comment about an opinion, an event, or another person jibes with my belief, I will have an emotional response. Those emotional responses are the key. Of course, we should feel, but our thoughts are too often directed by our feelings, and so we state those feelings as if they were facts.
Mild irritation is a proper feeling, but it may mask defensiveness. But if we feel angry – angry enough to lose our tempers – then there is something wrong: we should be able to think without the clouding of rage. Anger is never rational.
It is important is to consider what was said as accurately as possible. Actor Warren Beatty pointed out that we tend to remember not what was said, but how it made us feel. It is so easy to discolour memory, to add the occasional word or delete the baffled expression on the other’s face, replacing it with a snarl.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about cognitive dissonance that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!