Traps of the Mind (Part 2)

Mario Sikora
Jan 29, 2012

In the last article, I talked about how the brain has evolved for survival rather than accuracy. Now we’ll look at some specific biases or shortcomings of the way the mind interprets our inner and outer experience.

Cognitive Dissonance

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald

If we are to believe Fitzgerald, it is probably safe to say that there are few truly first-rate intelligences amongst us. Holding two opposed views in mind at the same time is very difficult to do because the brain experiences cognitive dissonance and wants to resolve mental conflicts, and it often does so without our awareness.

In their book, “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): How We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts,” Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson define cognitive dissonance as:

     “… a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as ‘Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me’ and ‘I smoke two packs a day.’ Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.” (p. 13, italics added)

In many ways, cognitive dissonance is necessary for our well-being; again, the brain evolved for survival, not accuracy. Further, it is important to remember that our brain evolved to be modular and very often one part of the brain wants one thing and another part of the brain wants something else. For example, one part of the brain says “eat sweets” while another part of the brain says “take care of your health.” Both of these impulses serve our survival, but they can cause inner turmoil. If we didn’t develop a way to resolve psychological contradictions we would be in a state of perpetual paralysis. Cognitive dissonance allows us to act; acting allows us to survive.

The downside, of course, is that it can cause us to overlook important information and we may make poor decisions. Each of us can easily become the smoker who overlooks the health threats, the person who gives in to the desire for sweets too often. Cognitive dissonance can cause us to stop questioning our actions, beliefs, and biases in many areas. 

In his book, “Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence,” the founder of cognitive psychology Aaron Beck points out that none of us, even the most hateful, gets up in the morning with the intention of doing the wrong thing. We all believe that we are justified in our actions because our intentions are in some way noble. Maladaptive behavior usually results from maladaptive thinking rather than malicious intent. It is cognitive dissonance that allows us to misbehave, because it can (mis)shape our thinking. We all see ourselves as good (or at least just) people; when we have an urge that others might objectively deem bad, we find ways to rationalize it. Good people don’t do bad things; I am a good person, therefore my actions are justified.

Cognitive dissonance may aid survival, but it can impede growth, and it can certainly impede our ability to see ourselves and our world accurately. It is not uncommon for clients receiving feedback from a 360 assessment to experience cognitive dissonance and start rationalizing the negative comments: “Well, I know who said that and he never liked me because I got a job he wanted.” “People may have that perception of me, but it’s not the way I really am.” It is relatively easy for an experienced coach to get past these rationalizations, but the examples demonstrate what we do in our own heads all the time–we often (nonconsciously) filter through data in order to create a consistent and creative narrative in our minds. And the theme of that narrative is generally I am right, I am justified, I have no need to question my assumptions. 

So what should we do in order to combat the sometimes nefarious results of cognitive dissonance?

The first step is to be aware of the phenomenon and to watch for times when we fall victim to cognitive dissonance. The best way to understand something is to become a student of it. We have to train ourselves to see something before we can manage it. This analysis can lead to a period of self-doubt and slight paralysis–we can become temporarily Hamlet-like in out questioning of ourselves–but that period ends as we learn to resolve the inner conflicts in a healthy and conscious way.

The second step is to get into the habit of challenging our assumptions. Scientists call this “falsification,” trying to disprove our hypothesis rather than simply trying to prove it to be true. We don’t want to do this all the time and begin questioning our every decision or action, but we should do it for the important ones. The more important a decision is, the more rigorous we should be about challenging the assumptions that lead us to it. 

The third step is to seek and be receptive to feedback. The tricky part about cognitive dissonance is that we often can’t see it. Others can help us see our own blind spots and contradictions. Develop a personal advisory board of people who will give you honest feedback and help you challenge your assumptions. Be sure you don’t shoot the messenger when you solicit such feedback. Listen, keep an open mind, and change your mind when it is the right thing to do.

Finally, grow comfortable with saying “I was wrong.” I would argue with Fitzgerald and say that the sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to say “I was wrong.” Rather than being a sign of weakness, it shows that we are receptive to new information and not stuck in our thinking for psychological or dogmatic reasons. The economist John Maynard Keynes was once accused of hypocrisy for contradicting an earlier statement. He retorted, “When the evidence changes I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

We should all seek to overcome the negative effects of cognitive dissonance and examine our contradictions. We should resolve those contradictions when we can. We should embrace them when we must (it is okay to eat sweets within moderation as long as we make efforts to be healthy, for example). And we should get into the habit of asking ourselves Keynes’s question.

Stay tuned…. Future posts will cover more traps of the mind.

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