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Cognitive Dissonance

Entry 581, on 2007-07-31 at 15:48:53 (Rating 3, Comments)

I have just finished listening to a podcast which discussed the topic of cognitive dissonance. Just in case you haven't heard of it I'll explain what cognitive dissonance is. Its a subconscious process where people try to reduce the conflict (or dissonance) in their minds caused by conflicting beliefs, evidence or actions. I first discovered this phenomena when I studied psychology during my time at university. I can remember it used to be a joke when my friends made some crazy statement I would say something like "nice case of cognitive dissonance you've got going there".

So an example might be if a person believes they are a brilliant mathematician yet gets a poor mark in a maths exam. He might say something like: I didn't do well because the exam wasn't fair. The lecturer clearly said we would be tested on a different problem. You'd be thinking the reality is the person just isn't that good at maths, or didn't work hard enough, but he would genuinely believe the other explanation.

In the podcast two prominent examples were discussed. First George Bush's decision to invade and occupy Iraq was clearly the result of cognitive dissonance. Anyone who looked at the problem non-emotionally and without the pre-conceived idea that the invasion had to proceed would see the evidence for illegal weapons was very weak, but Bush convinced himself that they existed.

The second example was religious belief. Various beliefs are clearly untrue (Mormonism was quoted in the podcast) yet people can still build convoluted belief systems to counter the negative evidence.

Everyone is probably guilty of this to a certain extent, and for many cases it doesn't really matter. If I convince myself that my friend beat me at table tennis because I hadn't drunk enough coffee yet, that's fine except that I probably won't improve if I don't admit she might have just been better on that occasion!

But there are times when facing reality is more important. The researcher said there is a way to avoid this form of self-delusion by examining your motivations for the decisions you make. He also quoted the example of US president Abraham Lincoln who deliberately included some of his political enemies in the government just to keep a reality check on his decisions. That's really impressive. How many modern leaders would do that?


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