Sunday, March 31, 2019

Revisiting Cognitive Dissonance

In our last discussion of bias, we took note of the human preference for consistency. Not only do we build upon previous learning and decisions with new choices when they are consistent with past behavior, we also strive for personal consistency in our thoughts, emotions, and actions. A lack of consistency and continuity among these three aspects of self causes an intensely uncomfortable mental distress. Information that challenges current thought, required behavioral compliance that contradicts thought and emotion, or the induction of intense, unpleasant feeling can create this disruption in the consistency of self. The experience of that painful stress is called cognitive dissonance. 

Cognitive dissonance feels intensely painful and the drive to maintain personal consistency proves to be remarkably strong. If the pressure created by a contradiction cannot be resisted or a means of coping cannot be readily employed, the person will alter these aspects of themselves to accommodate the inconsistency. If forced to do something against their better judgment or against their will, people will find an excuse or a rationale to support what they've done. The mind seeks homeostasis and depends on it, so it will adapt to protect the sense of self by altering or resetting its own aspects to accommodate the new set point. The self will reset to a new and different definition, normalizing the new change to preserve personal continuity. 

Cognitive distortions and biases become quite useful in this process. Not only do they produce cognitive dissonance when they are used as a means of manipulation, people also employ them to assuage their own cognitive stress by employing them as coping mechanisms. 

Who you are may be deplorable, and you might not even like your own set point of homeostasis and normality, but it is comfortable for you in the moment. The discomfort created by a challenge of some aspect of the self is so intense, you will change who you are – what you think, feel, and do – in order to relieve the pain of the challenge. If you're trapped into compliance, you may adapt to believe your own lie, altering who you are and how you perceive your world in order to accommodate the new normal. 

Part II
Part III

Further Reading: