Humans are Naturally Wired to Avoid Cognitive Dissonance
Last updated on Jan 24 , 2021
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Cognitive dissonance describes the anxiety we experience from holding two incongruent ideas in our minds simultaneously.
This video offers a "crash course" in cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance describes how it takes a lot more mental energy to hold two conflicting ideas in one’s mind simultaneously. This excess mental energy is uncomfortable (and studies show it can even make us feel physical discomfort), therefore, this is often something we avoid at all costs.
To understand cognitive dissonance in action, consider the following example. Consider the guilty and conflicted emotions you might feel when you want to eat an extra cookie but also believe that a consistent diet is important for your health. Believing that dieting is important but wanting to eat an extra cookie are contradictory or incompatible beliefs.
To reconcile this inconsistency, there are a number of different tactics one could deploy. First, you might change one belief (e.g., rather than feel conflicted by the incongruent thoughts, you instead think “one more cookie isn’t really going to impact my health”). Alternatively, you might change our behavior (e.g., if I believe dieting is important, I will not eat an extra cookie). A third tactic to resolve this inconsistent thinking could be to rationalize your behavior (e.g., I do believe diet is important to my health and I do want to eat an extra cookie, but I also exercise regularly so the impact of the cookie won’t really be felt). Finally, you might trivialize the thought altogether to solve for your inconsistent thinking (e.g., rather than feel conflicted by the incongruent thoughts, you instead think “diet doesn’t really matter to my overall health”).
Each of these tactics are ways we solve for the discomfort of cognitive dissonance so we can perceive ourselves as rational and consistent beings.
To avoid this discomfort, we often default to accepting information that supports our existing beliefs or worldview, known as Confirmation Bias.
Quick video offers an explanation of the Confirmation Bias.
The Confirmation Bias explains how humans often seek out and accept that which already supports their beliefs. For deeply entrenched beliefs or worldviews and emotionally charged issues, the effect has been found to be even stronger.
There are two main ways we display this bias. First, when we give more weight to information that confirms our beliefs and undervalue information that might disprove them, we’re demonstrating the confirmation bias. For example, we might claim that a news story is more credible from one source over another if the source more closely aligns with our preconceived beliefs. We can also display this bias when we selectively gather or recall information. Using the same example as before, we may only subscribe to the news sources that aligns with our preconceived beliefs and selectively filter out news from sources that do not align.
Ultimately, the Confirmation Bias helps us to maintain consistency in our thinking by equipping us with mental shortcuts to accept that which already supports our beliefs.
And the theory of motivated reasoning explains how easy it is for us to default to the information that supports our preconceived beliefs. The theory of motivated reasoning suggests that we seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and we avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts our beliefs.
This quick video explains the theory of motivated reasoning.
Another way humans tend to reduce cognitive dissonance is through motivated reasoning. Similar to the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning describes the tendency for humans to find arguments in favor of preconceived conclusions stronger than arguments for conclusions they do not want to believe. And unlike the rational, unbiased approach of critical thinking, this theory explains how we form and cling to false beliefs in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary.
We tend to engage in this kind of thinking when faced with a threat to the self. These “threats” can come in several forms -- when our self-worth, our future, or our worldviews are at stake. When these triggers are not at stake, humans are often motivated to draw accurate conclusions.
For example, it's easier for ardent Trump supporters to downplay his inappropriate behavior towards women than it is to accept this information and adjust their opinion of him accordingly. Having already committed support publicly, their reputation is at stake and the need to construct a motivated reasoning is high.
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