Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Another Example of My Own Dissonance

A few months ago, new neighbors moved into the apartment below us, and we’ve since developed an interesting friendship. I’d met the wife before, beside our cars in the parking area, and she told me that she was a licensed professional counselor.

Before I was able to have a “proper” conversation with her, I developed a general opinion of her based upon my impressions. I relied upon stereotypes that I’d developed about groups of people to build my ideas about my new neighbor, primarily related to her counseling background. As a person who has expert knowledge about human behavior, I made assumptions about her that I expected be validated when we did meet again.

When we had our second conversation, I was shocked to learn that she was a Mormon! Bam! I immediately went into a state of cognitive dissonance when she announced that she attended “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” (She was so happy to announce this, too!) I instantly became very aware of my facial expression, because I felt so disappointed! I’d not expected this at all because I’d relied upon a stereotype or a “rule of thumb.” (Cialdini talks much about this in his book.) I’d taken a mental shortcut, and in this case, it had not served to help me through the information that one has to process when one meets a new person.

All at once in that moment, I’m suddenly feeling my own shock, I’m trying to hide my facial expression of disappointment, I’m disappointed that I’d relied upon a stereotype (because I should know better), and then, I’m thinking about the impact the Mormon issue would raise for us in our friendship. The experience was both cognitive and emotional – and it was intense. The new information was very inconsistent with what I’d believed and all that I knew at that point, and I was very much off-balance. I never saw it coming.

(If I had kids, it would have been an excellent opportunity for them to ask me if they could play with knives and fire in the middle of the living room! I likely would have agreed to anything in that moment because of how intensely distracted I was by this powerful experience. Everything shuts down for just a moment. In this moment, we all are highly vulnerable.)

This is cognitive dissonance. The experience itself is neither good nor bad, but what triggers it and how one responds to it can very well be.

Since this second meeting, I’ve developed a great friendship with my neighbor, and we’ve had many frank and honest discussions about all sorts of things, religion in particular. It’s been very enlightening, because I’ve been able to address the doctrinal issues of Mormonism, but I’ve also been able to talk with her about the dynamics of our relationship and the clinical features of our interactions. For instance, a week after I “unloaded” what I knew about the Book of Abraham and the most problematic doctrines that Mormons like to avoid, I asked her for feedback. I told her about the symptoms of cognitive dissonance that I observed in her as I shared this information that she’d certainly never heard from the Mormons before. But we had a relationship of growing trust, and our discussions have been mutually instructive. We are teaching each other in many different ways as we go.

We’ve both made an effort to be transparent with one another, and it has taught me a great deal. I’ve asked her whether she would feel strange if I discuss our experience here at Under Much Grace, and she was excited and happy to help. In some upcoming posts, I would like to explain important factors I took into consideration as our relationship developed, the responses I observed when I introduced sensitive material, and ideas about how these observations might help others understand the process of leaving the thought patterns associated with a manipulative mindset like that of patriarchy.

More to come…