Some Thoughts on Cognitive Dissonance
I awoke from a dream of murky shapes moving through blackness, expecting to find myself in bed as I normally did whenever I woke up. Instead, I was on the floor of a classroom at my high school, with my English teacher in my face frantically asking, “Are you all right?” and several fellow students crowded around us.
I ignored her question for a moment because my first priority was to figure out what the heck was going on. Was this still a dream? No, I knew what reality felt like, and this was it. Had someone pulled me out of bed and taken me to school while I was still asleep? No, I never could have slept through that. What, then? I knew for darn certain that it couldn't possibly be happening, and yet I also knew for darn certain that somehow it was. All I could do was set that question aside for the time being and move right along.
So I moaned a little to indicate to the teacher that yes, I was okay, and pushed myself upright. As I glanced to my side and saw the table with my final exam sitting on it, my memory came flooding back. We'd been taking the test. We'd come to a stopping spot and the teacher had told us to get up and stretch. I'd done so, and gotten a little dizzy, and then I was waking up on the floor with no short-term memory. Come to find out I had orthostatic hypotension. So, the next two times this happened I recognized what was going on and didn't even get the amnesia (though I did get a scar on my cheek).
This anecdote, to me, is the perfect illustration of a concept called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is exactly what it sounds like – a lack of harmony in the brain. It's the unpleasant feeling created in your mind when it holds two or more conflicting ideas at the same time and doesn't know how to reconcile them.
For example, suppose you're an American citizen alarmed by the rise of public mass shootings and think, admirably enough, that something ought to be done about it. You reason that gun control would end the violence and support this hypothesis with statistics about how successful it's supposedly been in Europe. It seems like a simple concept and you campaign for it adamantly on Facebook, accusing the NRA and those evil conservatives of being trigger-happy or not caring about our children. Then you learn about a city called Chicago.
Now your mind holds two conflicting ideas: gun control reduces violence, and Chicago has some of the strictest gun control laws and yet one of the highest murder rates in the United States. For the time being you have been forced to believe them both; yet your mind knows that both can't possibly be true. Right?
The resulting feeling of cognitive dissonance is very unpleasant, and people naturally want to escape it. There are at least a few ways to do this, and sometimes more than one can be utilized:
• Reject one of the ideas. Maybe one of them is false after all. In this example, it would be better to reject the idea that gun control reduces violence, since the fact that Chicago has strict laws and a high murder rate is beyond debate. However, some people do reject demonstrably true facts that make them uncomfortable or challenge their worldviews.
• Modify one of the ideas. Maybe one of them is on the right track but a little skewed. Perhaps gun control does reduce violence from law-abiding citizens towards criminal aggressors, but not vice-versa.
• Collect missing information. Maybe both ideas are true as is but there's something you need to know in order to make them compatible. What if there's something anomalous about Chicago that causes a high murder rate despite the gun control laws? In this case you could compare it to other cities with strict gun control laws, see if they're more successful, and try to figure out what makes the difference. This process might also lead to embracing one of the previous two approaches.
• Stop worrying about it. This is a lot like the first technique, except rather than deciding one of the ideas is false, you just decide not to care. If you're truly dedicated to the cause of gun control but don't find it supported by case studies such as Chicago, you might just decide to ignore them and pretend they don't exist. Over the long term this approach is self-deception, but it can be appropriate as a placeholder to numb the cognitive dissonance and preserve your sanity while you're evaluating the other options.
In my own situation, when I woke up on the classroom floor, I first went with the fourth approach and put “on the shelf” the question of how the heck this could possibly be happening. I knew I couldn't figure it out and that in the meantime my English teacher and fellow students were desperately wondering if I was all right, so I needed to take care of that first. Then, unwittingly, I followed the fourth approach and collected the missing information – my exam, and the memory from that morning up until I'd passed out.
Cognitive dissonance is often lauded by critics of religion and spirituality as something that believers must always ignore, using the fourth option, in order to preserve their faith. (Such critics often abbreviate the term as “cog-dis”, because six syllables is more difficult to say and runs the risk of actually sounding intelligent.) If believers actually examined the evidence against their beliefs, so the thinking goes, they couldn't be believers anymore. So they don't.
I'm sure some people are like that. There are a lot of believers in the world. But that's a gross and arrogant oversimplification of the issues.
I remember when I came home from my first and only Especially for Youth, a week-long LDS Church event for teenagers. (It was my "first and only" because I lived in upstate New York, far from any Mormon population centers.) I was coasting on a spiritual high with stronger faith and a better attitude than ever before. A few weeks later, I was Googling Joseph Smith to write some corrections to a magazine article about him, and felt intrigued enough to click the search suggestion “joseph smith false prophet”.
I was shocked by what I found; the website of an ex-Mormon writing about dozens of evidences that proved the Church false. I didn't know that he'd probably copied and pasted them from elsewhere. I didn't know that every single one had been addressed by Mormon apologists. He certainly wasn't going to advertise those facts. I only knew that if these things were true, as they seemed to be, then the Church was a demonstrable fraud. Yet, that was impossible, because I'd felt the Spirit so strongly at EFY. That feeling didn't come from nowhere, and it wasn't my imagination.
So these two conflicting ideas created cognitive dissonance and made me very uncomfortable for a few weeks. Eventually I opted for the fourth option and put all of these criticisms “on the shelf”. If critics had known what was going through my head they surely would have mocked me. This wasn't a small number of issues to be ignoring, nor were they trivial. But the question of how I found myself waking up on the classroom floor hadn't been trivial either, yet ignoring it had been the best short-term option. Such turned out to be the case here.
A couple months later I was told about the Foundation for Apologetics Information and Research, which answered nearly all of the questions raised by the other website. I discovered that, whatever one's opinion on the evidence for and against the Church, the criticisms I'd encountered were blatantly dishonest in their presentation of quotes and factoids (or sometimes just incompetent. This guy had made the ubiquitous claim that DNA disproves the Book of Mormon, but like most such claimants, the only thing he knew about DNA was how to spell it.)
A similar story has played out thousands of times in my religion and surely millions if you count other religions. The ending, of course, isn't always the same. Some people conclude that their religion was right after all and some conclude that it's false. Either way, they're rejecting one idea, and so the unpleasant feeling of cognitive dissonance is resolved. That's one big reason why both those who stay in the Church and those who leave it report being made happy by their decision.
But, lest you think I just suffer from excessive confirmation bias (the universal flaw of favoring evidence that supports one's worldview and downplaying the importance of that which undermines it), let me offer another example of how cognitive dissonance has played out in my life. I used to believe in evolution. Then, presented with what appeared to be damning flaws and anomalies in that concept, as well as alleged conflicts between it and my religion, I became a creationist and accepted a literal reading of Genesis.
Never mind that I didn't realize these “flaws” had been addressed many times for many years, or that these “conflicts” were the result of certain debatable interpretations and assumptions. Even not knowing that, and having full confidence in them, questions kept popping up. What about all the evidence that motivated scientists to accept evolution in the first place? What were the odds of a scientific conspiracy to destroy religion? What were the odds of lay people being smarter and more informed about these things than people who spent their lives researching them?
When these questions came up, I squashed them. Evolution couldn't be true, I thought, because if it was, then we weren't really children of God, and there was no solid basis for morality other than what people decided it was. These would be disastrous conclusions.
To make a long story short, when I started learning about evolution again in Biology 1620 I could no longer ignore the questions. I realized that evolution made as much sense now as it had when I'd believed in it. I investigated further into the “flaws” and “conflicts” that had turned me away, gathered more information, and re-evaluated my assumptions. As a result, the cognitive dissonance was resolved and both my faith and my intellectual satisfaction increased dramatically.
By using these examples I don't mean to imply that anyone who thinks the LDS Church is false, or embraces creationism, is less intelligent than me or isn't thinking right. Obviously people will always disagree on such important issues. I simply use these as the best examples I have to illustrate the concept. It's an important concept because cognitive dissonance is a natural part of life for everyone to some degree or another, at some time or another, and how to handle it varies with the situation.
Going back to my gun control example, I'd say the best way to handle it is reject the idea that gun control reduces violence. But you probably figured that out on your own.