Now and then though we come across people with cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance theory says that people have an urge to find common ground between their expectations (of themselves, others or the world) and the reality of the situation. It is based on us having inconsistent thoughts. For example, one thought could be I like eating crisps, and another might be that crisps make me fat. So we have two thoughts that cause inconsistency, both of which can make us feel uncomfortable.
So we do one of 4 things;
- Change one of our thoughts to crisps aren’t too bad really brings about a balance, i.e. its OK to like eating crisps because really they are OK.
- We can change our behaviour, i.e. we can stop eating crisps so that we have a balance between the thought eating crisps makes me fat, and behaviour, I don’t eat them, so it’s OK
- Add a thought, so we could say yes crisps make me fat, yes I like eating them, but do you know what? I eat healthily most of the time, and I go to the gym twice a week and walk the dog daily, so it’s not too bad
- We can trivialise the event, Yes I eat crisps, yes they make me fat but hey-ho, I don’t really care, so it’s OK.
My other, and many would say better half; Carol is a driving instructor. She has been for almost 20 years now and has one of the highest first-time pass rates in the county. The fact that she has such a high pass rate speaks volumes of her ability as an instructor. I regularly come home to find bottles of wine, bunches of flowers and thank-you cards from pupils who have not only passed their driving test with her but have grown as a person.
Lucy’s Cognitive Dissonance
So let me tell you a true story about a pupil that Carol had, we’ll call her Lucy.
Lucy came to see my partner for driving lessons. She was an OK driver. However, she thought she was rather good and just needed to brush up on a few bits and pieces. The test elements a mere formality.
She sailed through the theory test, adding to her self-belief. Carol encouraged her positive behaviour, but there were times where she had to correct Lucy, pointing out bad driving habits. Corrections that did not go down well as Lucy believed she was an excellent driver. The reality was that although Lucy could drive, she was an inexperienced learner.
Lucy’s belief about herself flew in the face of the facts. She began to pick holes in her instructor.
One particular lession She began drifting towards the middle of the road. Carol pointed out to Lucy that when driving, you tend to steer towards the direction you are looking. Lucy did not appreciate this comment. During one lesson on a straight road travelling at 50 mph, she looked over her should. Lucy commented to Carol that she didn’t know what she was talking about because the car was still going forward even though she was looking behind.
Lucy was trying to find consonance (an agreement) between her belief and the truth. She believed she was a great driver, but the fact was that she made mistakes by blaming the instructor. She added thought and behaviour. The thought was that it is Carol’s fault and the behaviour was an attempt to prove Carole wrong.
Lucy’s test came round. Her examiner was previously the chief examiner of the area. She did well, sailing through the elements with minor faults right up until the last few hundred meters. Lucy tried to fit into a gap that was too small, forcing an oncoming car to mount the pavement. The examiner was forced to use the duel control to stop the car.
The examiner broke the news to Lucy, who promptly called him an incompetent fool who didn’t know what he was doing, exclaiming that he needed glasses.
Lucy did not expect to fail. When the facts show a difference to her beliefs, cognitive dissidence kicked in. To find balance (consonance), it became the examiner and Carol’s fault as to why she failed.
Granted, this is one of the more extreme examples, but I have experienced similar with students myself.
Other examples of cognitive dissonance can include the famous “the aliens are coming” social experiment leading to the paper “When prophecy fails” by Leon Festinger.
In the 1950’s Festinger, a social psychologist saw a story in his local paper with the headline.
“Prophecy from planet Clarion call to the city: flee that flood.”
A group of people led by a lady Festinger called Mary Keech to preserve her anonymity believed that Keech was receiving messages from aliens via automatic handwriting. The aliens predicted that a great flood would destroy the world by sunrise on December 21st, 1954. Keech and her followers were going to be saved at midnight because they were “true believers.”
Some of the followers gave away all their possessions, left their jobs and even left their spouses so the ‘flying saucer could rescue them.’
Festinger and a colleague contacted Keech and covertly joined the group of believers undercover while observing behaviours.
So what happened when no flying saucer and no great flood came?
Well, after it became apparent, no aliens were coming to the rescue one or two followers picked up their hats & coats and left. The Keech got a ‘message’ from the aliens.
“The God of this world has decided that as your group have spread so much light that he has spared the world.” She wrote – or words to that effect.
Cognitive dissonance, add a thought, and it all becomes OK again…
The whole story is fascinating (well, to me, it is anyway) and shows how cognitive dissonance can play such a significant role in our lives.
So when someone is giving you a hard time, and you can’t see why then yes it’s always good to question to see if you are suffering from cognitive dissonance and how you are dealing with it. But also ask if the other person might be experiencing cognitive dissonance too.