Monday, December 3, 2012

Cognitive Dissonance in Confrontation and the Process of Forgiveness

Note:  Trigger alert for sexual abuse.

Why We Don't 
Hear One Another
In Conflicts

An upcoming post discusses a situation in an important relationship in my own life as an example of forgiveness when it gets messy. Before heading there, I would like to revisit the concept of cognitive dissonance because of the major role it plays in conflicts. I believe that both the offended person and the offender within complicated matters of offense and forgiveness will experience it at many times along the way during the overall process. Understanding the phenomenon can help us manage our own actions and thoughts as well as help us to understand our offenders compassionately.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance describes the stress and discomfort experienced when a person is faced with ideas, values, behaviors, or emotions that compete with the ones they already hold or when these elements within a delivered message conflict with one another.  Things just don't add up and make sense. In Scripture, we see the irony of how Judas betrays Jesus by betraying him to the Roman soldiers with the loving expression of a kiss, a very dissonant act. The behavior and expression itself contradicts everything else about the context of the situation, and that inconsistency creates a tremendous level of mental and/or emotional stress and confusion. When it occurs in our daily lives, that stress pressures a person to adapt rather quickly by momentarily adapting their own behaviors, emotions, or beliefs. Though it feels uncomfortable, this experience of dissonance is just one of those very human responses that is neither good nor bad, and it can herald periods of personal change. The experience ttells us about that the challenge that a situation poses for us. In that sense, cognitive dissonance is a function of discernment which we can harness through understanding and self awareness.

As a Covert Tactic of Change or Manipulation

Within the context of manipulation, authority figures, groups, and even salesmen can use cognitive dissonance as a means of accomplishing a desired goal. As discussed at length in this series of posts, manipulators can use subtle dissonance hooks to get us to follow through with a behavior or accept an idea that we would have otherwise rejected. For example, a car salesmen appeals to your emotions, offers you thoughts, reasons, and information about why a car purchase would be a good idea, and they ask for behavioral compliance to help pull all three of these aspects of self over into making a purchase. They manipulate factors to capitalize on subtle aspects of human nature which makes the experience seem pleasant and beneficial. In churches, we see the same types of pressures used to enhance the likelihood that a person will comply with standards of behavior and emotion which makes acceptance of their ideals much easier. (“Can you say 'Amen,' raise your hand, and repeat after me?”) In both of these examples, the individual challenges seem largely insignificant, but they work well because they are so subtle and incremental. We accept and tolerate them because they're not perceived as threatening.

As a Potential Deterrent to Communication

In contrast, confrontation about an offense results in an effect that's anything but subtle, and emotions are generally more heightened for both parties involved which can trigger cognitive dissonance. Rather than the indirect, covert nature that we see in religious recruitment or grooming by a salesman or manipulator, personal confrontations dive right into the challenge without disguise. Many people feel intimidated by the idea of confrontation in general, let alone actually confronting others who have hurt them, or unpleasant subject matter prompting the confrontation itself can be intimidating, too. These complications can be endless, including the baggage that we carry about proper conduct for Christians and whether or not we see confrontation as a positive measure that builds relationships and improves intimacy.

I'm going to create an iconic but ficticious scene from a very troubling occurrence about which countless women have told me. Denial in such an experience tends to be common when victims break their silence about these matters, and this more demonstrative example helps to illustrate that point. I wanted this obviously difficult example to depict what happens when a person is confronted with something very threatening and why cognitive dissonance occurs.

Hypothetical Example of Something Tough to Hear

A nineteen year old girl resists attending a family gathering at a relative's home – a place that they rarely visit anymore. When her mother becomes angry that her daughter has refused to go, she becomes frustrated by her daughter's resistance. The daughter tells her mother that she doesn't want to go because she'll have to face her cousins who both molested her several years earlier while staying with them there. She's managed to avoid seeing them most of the time since the unreported incident took place, has not had to return to the house where the event occurred, and the teen has learned that both of her cousins will be attending the party. She finally blurts out her secret shame to her mother, terrified that she will be forced to attend the party to face the two who assaulted her when she was a child. She's also afraid to return to what is the scene of her world's worst crime.

Consider that at this point, the daughter is in pretty rough shape emotionally. She's terrified to just think about the experience itself, but she's also tried desperately to keep the matter a secret for a long time. She just couldn't hold out any longer, partly because of the shame of carrying it and partly because she didn't want to hurt her mother. The relatives are also on her mother's side of the family, so the daughter realizes that the information holds even more impact for her mother beyond just hearing that her daughter was sexually assaulted.

Here are some pre-existing thoughts running through the daughter's head, before she even says anything to her mom:
  • I'm disgusting and I hate myself. Everyone else will hate me when they find out.
  • I never want to have to see those people or that place again.
  • Are they going to try it again? I don't feel safe there. I can't ever go back there. I'll die.
  • The nightmares will start again, and I was just starting to get over them since I went off to school.
  • My mother puts so much emphasis on sexual purity, and now I'm worthless to her.
  • My mother may even blame me. She might not believe me because I hid it from everyone.
  • They said if I told anyone, they would make me regret it.
  • Etc...

At this point, the mother becomes flooded with all sorts of emotions, a host of griefs, and both general and specific fears about this new information:
  • What????!!!!! Oh no! The unthinkable!
  • What has this done to my daughter?
  • Does she have any lasting physical problems?
  • Did I miss signs of emotional problems? (This may bring up telling past events.)
  • I'm a terrible mother for putting my daughter in the care of my brother and his family.
  • What' the BLEEP is wrong with my brother and his wife?
  • I'm mortified that I didn't know about this. I've abandoned my child through poor parenting.
  • I'm a terrible person and a terrible mother.
  • What kinds of problems is this going to create for the extended family?
  • Should we go or not go to this or any other family gatherings?
  • I don't believe her. She's lying. It never happened. She wants attention.
  • Etc.

Imagine the daughter's response if her concerns are rejected or if the mother feels so threatened that she cannot express empathy openly right away? The daughter might react with anger if the mother blames her or claims that what has happened to her is untrue. Then the mother thinks the daughter is both a liar and arrogant, not realizing that the anger is a sign of pain and terror. This revictimizes the daughter. What if the mother feels so threatened by the experience, or perhaps unknown to the daughter, the mother may have suffered a rape when she was young and becomes lost in her own emotions? The mother may not be emotionally available to her daughter until she gets past her own emotions. The potential for misunderstanding is great if each party doesn't take into account the emotional responses of the other -- and that their behavior might not “be ideal.”

Do you think that either mother or daughter can have a very effective talk wherein everyone will remember everything that is spoken to them with any degree of objectivity? Chances are that the daughter is in a completely altered state of consciousness, and the mother is as well. Some people tend to handle stress differently and negative information differently. Each person has motives and emotions and biases to work through over time., but it is nearly impossible to predict how certain kinds of information will affect people. And what they are able to process and what they can't may make no sense to anyone but them.

Beyond the surface details of events, neither party is likely in good shape to process details, and their memories of the confrontation will not be objective. Each one has gone into cognitive dissonance and they're also highly emotionally engaged. The information itself is repugnant, but considering the very personal nature of sexuality and the added significance of family involvement, both parties feel threatened. Hopefully, they won't have to deal with any technical information that they'll need to remember later, because they're preoccupied and incapacitated cognitively. If you're one of the parties involved in this exchange, you have to consider also that you've likely missed a large chunk of what the other party said and that they're impaired to some extent and may not be expressing things in a way that's clear, objective or ideal, if that's even possible.

I've been in many situations in my own life and as a more objective party in the heathcare setting where I had to deliver devastating news or came along to help those people understand what they'd been told by another. In these types of overwhelming situations, people need review and reminding about the bad and technical news that they need to process for themselves or concerning their loved ones. Because of the fear and grief involved, I know from experience that people experience this kind of cognitive dissonance all the time, sometimes just due to the fact that the information is technical and abundant. (I great deal of my own work in clinical nursing involved teaching patients what the doctor actually said to them at a pace and a level that allowed them understand.) And I'm amazed at what information people will find disturbing and what they can take in with ease. Each person has their own set of skills and their own baggage that influences how fast and how well they are able to process what is being told to them. Sometimes, people cannot hear certain information, and sometimes, they just cannot retain it. Often, it needs to be repeated and repeated, and perception colors everything.

My profession focuses on return verbalization and demonstration to ensure that clients are prepared and that I have done my job effectively, but we rarely hold out for repeat verbalization and clarification in our relationships. We're even less attentive to such things when we confront others with stressful or emotionally difficult information.

What Cognitive Dissonance Looks Like

How do I know that that people become incapacitated cognitively? Because of what happens to brainwaves when people experience cognitive dissonance. The thinking part of their brain slows down, and they stop thinking. They get consumed with safety and emotion, and that dulls the ability to think analytically.

When you're thinking clearly and are fully alert, your brainwaves crank along at about 15 Htz. The impulses from the analytical part of the brain looks like this on EEG.
Normal Beta Wave Activity usually in the neighborhood of 15-20 Htz

A SPECT scan of the normal brain, functioning normally, looks like this from the vantage that shows the best view of the prefrontal cortex where rational thought takes place. It's a view from below the brain, looking up at it to see the under surface.

For more information about these brainwave states, refer back to this post. We slip in and out of different states of consciousness throughout the course of a day very naturally, depending on what we're doing. Different areas of the brain make different waves, and this is the type of pattern made by the area where rational thought takes place. Information is taken in, processed, and thought and emotion work together to inform one another in fully integrated function. All of the areas of the brain are active and functioning well, so the brain image shows a uniform level of activity.

A Brain on Cognitive Dissonance

Extreme emotional arousal and fear of a perceived threat significantly alters our brainwaves, and we temporarily stop processing information analytically (thoughtfully). Everything becomes a matter of emotions and survival. We cannot reason because that part of the brain stops working efficiently so it can process emotion and evaluate potential threat. On EEG, in the prefrontal cortex, brainwaves generally slow down to an alpha state, and in some people who have suffered childhood trauma, their brainwave states can slow down even further into a theta state. This thinking part of the brain all but goes to sleep. Retained memory gets tagged emotionally and is not associated with thoughtfulness, ideas or problem solving when this happens. People often call this type of cognitive dissonance “a state of shock.”

Our emotional centers and our survival centers become engaged, and that causes blood flow to the thinking part of the brain to diminish significantly, just temporarily. (This is not a real-time picture of what happens when a person experiences threat, but for our interests, it shows the same temporary physiologic response.)

Implications for the Process of Forgiveness

As the next post will illustrate even further, emotional factors will greatly affect how well and how quickly a person can adapt to information. When emotions run high, or when the medium of communication limits the message (through a misunderstood tone or problems with delivery), the message may be misunderstood or even completely rejected. As we see in this example of mother and daughter, both parties become too overwhelmed to effectively communicate. This often happens when we approach those who have offended us.  Enjoy as I preach to the chorus.

When we confront others over an offense, often we find that the person who hurt us is not capable of honesty or perhaps feels so personally threatened that they cannot communicate very well with us. Chances are that they are not able to think very well at the time that we confront them. We need to keep in mind that cognitive dissonance can play a major role in this process.  They may be so impaired emotionally at the time of the confrontation or when certain subject matter is presented to them that they may not be able to receive anything that we say to them.  They may be entirely caught up in their own experience, and it may not even have anything to do with us.  For some people, they may never be able to receive what we have to say. And what we say may not be what they hear.

Another pitfall that can follow confrontations that are very emotional can be the "he-said-she-said" problem.  Very often, if emotions are running high and people feel threatened, no one will remember anything objectively.  That applies to everyone who was involved, so compassion and understanding are imperative and vital, and we have to be smart about our expectations, too.  The rough stuff in life probably requires several confrontations and discussions over time.  Often in such situations, people want to hang on to something said in the anger of despair and fear as though it was the sum total representation of how the other party feels about them or the situation.  It can be easy to trick ourselves into reducing complex situations down to a simple reaction that may be the most complex thing in the universe for a person in pain.  If you have a conflict with someone who is on their own Path of Bitterness, they may only be interested in collecting kindling to place underneath you when they burn you at the stake, and they'll use such simplifications against you.  As Christians, we've got to make sure that we're not in the denial of the same kind of process, looking for utter vindication through blame instead of working to a place of peace in the relationship through forgiveness.  Knowledge of cognitive dissonance can help us understand that and can give us better expectations during confrontations.  This can help prevent us from playing with this kind of fire about things spoken in the heat of the moment from a place of shock and fear.

We must also recognize that in many instances, the process of repentance for the other party is just that – a process. The person we confront may need time and understanding as they take in information and work through their own emotions. This becomes particularly hard if a person's motives were very good but resulted in something very painful for others. All personal factors aside, they're going to experience their own cognitive dissonance, just because their intent and what they believed they were doing resulted in something that worked the opposite of what they intended. For those who are tender hearted and/or insecure, this is a very difficult thing to accept, and they will need time and understanding as they take in and think about what has happened. They will begin their own grief process which starts with shock and denial, and it takes time to get through to acceptance. Cognitive dissonance will be a big part of that process for them. In this sense, repentance for them can be just as much of a journey as forgiveness is for the offended person.

This also points out the issue of tone as well. Most people find confrontations stressful, and because of emotional arousal, those doing the communicating may exhibit emotions that are not typically thought of as Christian, anger being one of them. This can also be a potent source of dissonance that can cloud the message. You may have something important to say, but if your intimidation or fear comes across as anger, that may cloud the understanding of the receiver of the message. In the same respect, I have also seen a sweet and non-threatening tone used to convey the most brutal of messages.  What we communicate only comprises a small portion of the message, and we are wise to take all of that into consideration.

We have to be understanding and forgiving of one another when we confront each other. Knowledge about the cognitive dissonance effect can help us on the journey, making us compassionate communicators in humbling way.  The phenomenon should remind us that we are all flawed and fallible but capable of amazing compassion.

There's more to come about how
to cope when ideal forgiveness
is impossible or unlikely.