Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Joe Omundson

Cognitive dissonance

I'm fascinated by cognitive dissonance. Even the way those six syllables pronounce themselves feels exciting; what it represents for me personally, and as a universal human phenomenon, is one of the most interesting things I've found in life.

I like how Wikipedia defines it. "Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values."

It's the feeling I had when I hated the ways the women in my life had been treated yet found myself imitating some of the same actions toward them. When I desperately believed in God yet felt no basis for it. When I volunteered at a needle exchange and experienced heroine and meth users as normal people. When I met a drag queen who was referred to as male and female interchangeably.

There's a wide world out there with innumerable perspectives, ideas, and realities. Layers of interconnection, cause and effect. Natural laws that provide a basis for biological experience and human culture; artificial systems of rules that populations tacitly agree to live by. As we go through life we are bound to discover aspects of reality which contradict our conditioned truths.

But our minds seek internal consistency. We want stability in the world around us and it's uncomfortable when our foundations are challenged. So, we seek to reduce these conflicts in our minds in a number of ways.

Sometimes we deny any information that challenges the worldviews in which we are established. No, people aren't gay by birth! God wouldn't do that. They're just doing it for attention.

Sometimes we come up with more elaborate justifications to hold on to our beliefs. Well, maybe some people are inclined to be gay, but it's still a choice to act on it, and God can help heal that disorder.

Other times we actually allow our preconceived notions to be changed. Wow, I guess I was wrong about gay people; there's nothing bad about them and actually their love is just as beautiful as mine.

I believe that the best thing we can do with cognitive dissonance is learn to notice when we're experiencing it, and embrace it as a learning tool instead of fighting against it. It's not the disequilibrium itself which is painful but rather our anxious struggle to avoid it.

Cognitive dissonance can reveal that in our formative years, two concepts were tied together which were not related. Or, it can show us that there is an underlying connection between two ideas that we perceive as totally separate. Life is a sorting process, a constant refinement of our experience, and the more willing we are to reevaluate our preconceptions the more our consciousness is able to evolve.

When we realize that something in our worldview conflicts with reality, we have a new opportunity to adjust ourselves to become more in line with truth. An erroneous belief is about to expose itself for eradication. While this process can be uncomfortable in the short term, it leads to a more harmonious existence in the future.

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