Are you cognitive of your cognitive dissonance?
We all experience cognitive dissonance, and it is worth exploring what it is, why it comes about, and what we can do about it.
Someone sent me an email full of data last week; I noticed it had an interesting effect. As I started to read it, I could hear myself explaining to myself why it was all wrong. The issue was less about the rightness of the data and more about my reaction to that data. While on one level, I like to think that I was doing an excellent job of seeing through bias in the data, what I was doing was engaging cognitive dissonance.
We all experience cognitive dissonance, and it is worth exploring what it is, why it comes about, and what we can do about it. Like most cognitive biases, understanding these elements not only allows us to see cognitive dissonance in others but spot it in ourselves.
Fixing Reality to suit your beliefs
The book Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, explores the interesting learnings of the Innocence Project. I have referred to this project before in a blog called "Your eyes do lie, but it's not their fault." Still, I was more focused on why you can't believe all eyewitnesses. Syed reported that The Innocence Project had studied 358 people who had been convicted and sentenced to death since 1989 and were exonerated through DNA evidence. Of these, 7 out of 10 had been convicted through eyewitness misidentification.
For this blog, I want to focus on what happened when they presented the new data to the detectives and prosecutors who initially tried the cases. How did they respond to this new evidence? Few changed their opinions on the people exonerated, and some continued to invent more bizarre reasons why the accused were guilty anyway. This is cognitive dissonance.
Psychology Today describes cognitive dissonance as a "term for the state of discomfort felt when two or more modes of thought contradict each other." At the same time, that may be a correct definition; a simpler one maybe when your brain invents reasons to justify your behavior or make you feel better about it.
· You buy a gold necklace for $5, and the second time you wear it, it breaks. Oh well, you say to yourself, it was only $5, what did I expect. That is cognitive dissonance.
· You find out that someone you thought was guilty of a crime was actually innocent of that crime and had been in jail for five years. Oh well, you say to yourself, he was probably guilty of something, so it’s ok. That is cognitive dissonance.
I saw a great example of this effect on Twitter the other day. Look at this tweet from Anne Applebaum (@anneapplebaum). It is an excellent example of someone who held a belief they vigorously promoted in public, saying that “I am still correct” while all the data shows she may have been wrong.
If you want to live with some level of integrity in your life, it’s best to avoid this trap.
The root of cognitive dissonance.
At the root of much of this is our amygdala and the old 'flight or fight’ instinct. Getting data that proves us wrong is the most concerning thing for the amygdala, which is worried about how being wrong will make you look. So rather than thinking that you look bad, it gives you reasons why you were right all along.
More specifically, as your brain gets new data that conflicts with your beliefs, or in a way that seems to undercut a favorable self-image, we become motivated to resolve somehow the negative feeling. Of course, it's not always possible to resolve dissonance, so we often ignore the new data to eliminate the conflict.
Think about Anne Applebaum's tweet above …. "Even if every single word in the Steele dossier was wrong,"…. you can tell cognitive dissonance is coming … "it would not change the fact that the Russians sought …" etc.
Let us try not to get sucked into the politics and think about the message. It is important that we can spot when others are doing this and even worse when we do it ourselves. The piece to watch out for is the opening, and the "even if" is the giveaway. It was just another way of saying, "I was right whatever the facts are."
Let's ask, how could she have written the tweet to be less cognitive dissonant? Well, maybe some humility would have been a great approach. How about something like this: "Most of the Steele dossier has been proved wrong and many of us were too quick to believe it. Yet for many of us, this does not negate that we believe Trump sought Russians …"
What matters to you – followers or facts
I guess my version is not so 'sexy' and probably wouldn't get as many retweets. But it might have been intellectually more honest. As journalists, we would hope that accuracy and intellectual honesty would be essential to her but maybe not. Maybe getting retweets was the purpose anyway.
Living with integrity may be more critical for the rest of us, especially those not looking for a dopamine hit from our retweets. Being honest in what you say and how you say it is worth spending time to get right. Part of that is listening for our own cognitive dissonance and being honest about it. Honesty can be brutal, and getting it right is challenging. It is, of course, so much easier to ignore the impact and say what makes you feel better. Sadly, that is not the truth. That's just a story you are telling yourself.