Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Cognitive Dissonance


What is Cognitive Dissonance?

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.  -Wikipedia

My first encounter with Cognitive Dissonance occurred when I read an atricle on the psychology of persuasion.  The article's main point was that people will immediately discard information that causes them Cognitive Dissonance.  You may thing that tricking a stream of persuasive information is effective.  You would be wrong.  That data will be discounted into oblivion within nano-seconds unless that data is already in alignment with the person's world-view.

Picture from HERE

 A convenient mental model is to visualize a trash weir at the intake of a storm water drain.  Sticks and limbs that are not in alignment with the weir are filtered out.  Sticks and limbs that in alignment go right in.

An example of how paradigms and Cognitive Dissonance interact is when we are dining in a loud, babble-filled room.  Most of us are able to filter out the babble and attend to the person we are dining with...until somebody says our name or we hear the voice of a loved one.  The fact that we are able to perk up and change the focus of our attention suggests that we are processing and discarding the babble using Cognitive Dissonance.  Those names that catch our attention are in alignment.

The key to persuading other, or being able to influence events, is to overwhelm the filter.  Knock it off the hinges with a massive deluge of vivid, compelling, irrefutable data.

Control Systems

The influence that Cognitive Dissonance has on control systems is to make them sticky.  New information is not incorporated into system adjustments unless it agrees with old data.  That creates the near universal phenomena of "leaders driving while looking in the rear view mirror."

Pictures taken HERE
The view through the windshield.  Gee, there seems to be a lane knocked through the trees all the way to the lake.

We are all leaders and we are all vulnerable to this phenomena.  Not only that, but nearly all of us work in some kind of matrix where we must work with other leaders and follow direction given to us by those in positions of authority above us.  We need to learn about the shortcomings in our "control processes" if we are to get better.

Wait, it gets worse

Classical Cognitive Dissonance was Leon Festinger's attempt to reconcile aberrant expermental results with existing psychological theory.  His reconciliation was that we have a robust, resilient value system (world view) and we attempt to minimize pain.

There is now a competing explanation for the phenomena that is much less flattering to the human species.  The competing explanation (still often lumped under CD) is that humans lack self awareness.  Not only do we lack self awareness but we are oblivious to this lack of awareness.

Cognitive Dissonance, this competing theory contends, results from human beings unconsciously re-writing the narrative of their history.

Most thinking people are very comfortable with the image of the future as a road with many forks.  Choosing a particular fork early on will erase the roads that would branch off from the fork not taken.  For example, I might drug-and-party my way through high school but that sparsifies the probability density cloud of roads then end with a Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Those same thinking people want history (the sum of our narratives) to be a rigid, immutable fact.  History is the foundation of our present.  It is unsettling to realize that history is a concrete that never hardens. 

We are in a constant state of re-writing our narratives, deciding which events are "important" and which were the meaningless echo-y babble in the large dining room.

As evidence of this, any historian will tell you that history is much easier to write 20 years after the fact than to be able to write it while the victims are still bleeding.  It is impossible to tell a priori which "facts" will be considered pivotal and which can be forgotten.

So how might this provide insight?

A young man is shot and killed by a policeman.

Pictures from the tragedy du jour  Names and faces will change on a weekly basis. Meanwhile the script does not change.

One side presents the young man as a person struggling against a stacked deck.  But, given the strength of his character they believed that he would ultimately prevail and become a productive member of society.

People cling to this narrative because the young man grew up in a fatherless home and the mother was no longer able to control him at beyond age 12.

At that point the mom must either embrace the pain of recognizing that her son is incorrigible (an excellent if underused word) and that he is proof that many of the life choices she (the mom) made must be repudiated.

Or, the mom can adopt the struggling choirboy narrative and receive the support and approbation of her neighbors.  It is not a difficult decision for the mom to make.

A few key life-choices that she would have to repudiate are having a child out of wedlock.  Taking that fork set the stage for when she was no longer able to control him at age 12...she did not have a man to tag in when things got hairy.

A second key life-choice that may have occurred was when the child became physical with her at age 12 or 13.  The mom did not acknowledging that the young man presented challenges that were beyond her ability to handle.  She did not keep control by escalating, by calling for outside help.  As a result of the images in her rear-view mirror she (tacitly) gave her approval to her son's violence against women and against others who are weaker than he is.

The only way the mother can justify this decision is if she can convince herself that her little boy will sort things out on his own, or perhaps he will get raised by the village and the rough edges and corners of his people skills will be honed smooth by those other, fine young men he hangs out with.  In other words, he is a good boy a heart, a gentle, misunderstood giant who was in the process of turning his life around.

Otherwise her life was a lie.

Rewriting the road map

For purposes of illustration, one way to lead out of this specific class of conflict is to reframe the second decision point as a violence against women issue.  Mom's are generally quite self-less, so the issue must be posed as a duty the mother has to her future daughters-in-law and her future grandchildren.

The argument must be vivid (montages of battered women and abused children), it must be an overwhelming tsunami (many pictures.  Videos of "witnessing".  "Face time" community organizers convincing every hair dressers and preacher in a community that asking for help when your boy is 12-13-14 is not "ratting them out.")  Trickles don't work.  You have to knock the filter off the hinges.

1 comment:

  1. Sadly true, and you're absolutely right... We HAVE to change the narrative to reflect REALITY...