Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why did I just do that?

What exactly is cognitive dissonance? It sounds like an esoteric, psychological term that has little or no application to our daily lives. I feel it’s far closer to the everyday life than that. Let me explain.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when we hold two different views in our minds which contradict each other, or when our actions contradict our beliefs. For instance, I spent years smoking, knowing full well that it was shortening my lifespan. The effect of this was that I rationalized my smoking by thinking, “My father is 80 years old and smoked his whole life.” Well, the addiction helped too. I have since quit, but the effect was to draw down the intensity of the belief that it would eventually kill me.

Another example, a bit more personal, is the belief that we don’t have free will; that we live in a deterministic universe. The dissonance comes when I beat myself up for past mistakes. As it did in the above instance, this reduces my intensity of belief in the deterministic universe. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to completely let go of my guilt, but I have reduced it considerably by reminding myself of the deterministic universe in which we all live.

Other common instances of cognitive dissonance are in relationships- if you don’t like a person, but do something nice for them anyway, you may find yourself liking those individuals more than you did prior to the favor. Conversely, if you like someone and they hurt you, the dislike you feel towards them will be disproportionate to the amount of harm they have done.

This can be used to your advantage. If there’s someone who dislikes you, tricking them into doing you a favor (say, by asking them in polite company), they may come around to liking you. Benjamin Franklin famously did exactly this with a rival legislator, though whether he did it deliberately or accidentally is unclear. In any case, they became fast friends until the death of the legislator rather rudely ended their relationship.

Keep this framework in mind when you catch yourself rationalizing, or behaving oddly- you may have a lot more going on in your head than you thought!

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