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Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the psychological conflict that occurs when there is disharmony between two contrary beliefs a person holds or between a personal belief and a personal action.  The degree of mental stress depends on the strength of the beliefs and the magnitude of the conflict. Cognitive dissonance especially when intense often leads to an alteration in attitudes, values or behaviors to mitigate the psychological disharmony and reduce the mental paradox.

Causes of Cognitive Dissonance

  • Forced Compliance Behavior: Being forced to do something publicly but privately not wanting to do it. The internal inconsistency is between what they did (action) and what they did not want to do (cognition).  A true vegan who does not believe animals should be eaten and then eats meat to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. 
  • Decision Making: Having to decide between two options that conflict with one another.  Deciding between buying a new car which you really want or using the money to go back to school to advance your career for your future. 
  • Effort: Going to great lengths to accomplish or win something and finding out in the end it was not worth as much as you thought.  Spending several years of your life researching, writing and experimenting on a scientific breakthrough and in the end it turns out to be a wrong hypothesis or someone else beats you to it.

Cognitive dissonance causes mental tension which may result in psychological restlessness, frustration,   irritability, anxiety, depression and even confusion.  Cognitive dissonance also commonly manifests itself in physical symptoms like digestive issues, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, muscle soreness and headaches.  Symptoms typically continue and often worsen until the dissonance is either resolved or reduced.

Ways to Relieve Cognitive Dissonance

  • Change existing attitude, behavior or belief:  This is the most straightforward approach but also the most difficult since it is hard to change well-established values, beliefs and behaviors. For example, a smoker that worries that cigarettes will cause him to get lung cancer quits smoking.  
  • Adding a new belief or ignoring the cognition:  Strengthening one side of the dissonance versus the other to minimize the conflict.  For example, a heroin addict believes he does not have a problem because he only uses it because he enjoys it while his life is falling apart due to his habit. 
  • Justify the behavior or belief by changing the conflicting cognition about the behavior or belief: Gaining new perspective or learning new information. A smoker who understands the risk of smoking but decides it is fine since he needs it to relax and de-stress putting “quality” of life over “quantity” of life. 
  • Justify the behavior or belief by adding new behaviors or beliefs:  Making the self-contradiction resolve by counteracting it with an action or belief that makes it okay. For example, a dieter justifies having a donut because they are going to the gym later and will work it off.

The COVID-19 is a grand experiment in cognitive dissonance with all the public disinformation, lack of consistency, inconsistent recommendations, nontransparent explanations, mandates, masking rules, lock downs and hypocrisy of decrees versus actions.   It is obvious to see the direct consequence that the COVID-19 virus has caused but it may take years to figure out the psychological toll from the inept handling of this pandemic by our policy makers. 

Confirmation Bias

Humans are agreeable creatures and like their comfort zones.  They snuggle up to attitudes, ideas and thoughts that reinforce their own. They love being right and herein lies the power of confirmation bias.  This “myside” bias is the tendency to seek, interpret and recall stuff in a manner that favors pre-established beliefs, behaviors and attitudes.  This is a human systematic error of thinking with a self-serving purpose.  It reduces cognitive dissonance, builds confidence and allows us to process information more efficiently.  We hear what we want to hear, read what we want to read and remember what we want to remember.  Myside bias is most intense when it involves a highly favored outcome such as a promotion, or an emotionally charged topic like politics, or a high virtue notably justice.  

 The internet has changed the way we access information.  The volume of information and speed at which we are expected to process it has increased many fold.  Given the ability of the content providers to manipulate what information we view and the way it is presented it is vital to recognize not only our confirmation bias but the content provider’s confirmation bias. If not, they have the power to dramatically influence your attitudes, beliefs and world views.  When it comes to our health, finances, education and careers it is vital that we think for ourselves and not someone else tell us what to think, or the flawed decisions we make will have negative consequences. 

Examples of Confirmation Bias

  1. Personal or eyewitness accounts.  There is a small child throwing a small tantrum in the store.  One person may see a precious creature in need of some love and care while another person sees a spoiled brat that needs to be disciplined. What one chooses to see and remember is often through a prism of their personal experiences, beliefs and attitudes.  It is rarely an objective accounting of the facts.  
  2. “Fake news”.    News outlets and their reporters almost always have an agenda.  It is “their” news not unadulterated news.  Headlines often distort the actual content and the facts presented are often only the ones that support their side while omitting the facts that may run contrary to it or when it is presented, it is often to belittle it.  
  3. Social interactions.  When we text someone we expect a text back.  When there is no text back, there is a tendency to make up a reason for the silence. “Maybe they don’t like me.” With time our own “story” becomes our reality.   If you get the notion that someone doesn’t like you, you naturally begin to look for other things about that person that validates your presumption they don’t like you and subconsciously filter out the things about that person that might lead to the contrary. 
  4. Scientific Research.  Basically all scientific research is based on confirmation bias, since it is simply an attempt to validate a preconceived hypothesis.  It is often paid for, designed by and carried out with people that have invested interests in the “expected” outcome.  The “science” during the COVID 19 pandemic that the experts preach has been a grand display of confirmation bias.
  5. Social, search and service platforms.  Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple and other social networking services use our thirst for validation to monetize us.  They play on our strongest emotions like fear, anger and love to keep us addicted.  They don’t want to upset you with conflicting information that goes against your psyche causing you to tune out so they use filter bubbles and echo chambers to “protect us” from nonconforming thoughts or attitudes.  They validate our likes, ideologies and dislikes. They can reinforce our perspectives to the extent that we may completely ignore contradictory evidence that stares us in the face. It is part of the reason we have become so polarized in our views especially on topics politically charged.
  6. Other common places to find confirmation bias include bargain hunting, product research, stock picking, homeopathy, employment hiring, human resource departments and medical diagnosis. 

Confirmation bias is human nature; it contaminates all our lives and our most important decisions.  Unfortunately as with other cognitive biases, confirmation bias cannot be eliminated, but it can be managed but it does take mental effort.  Critical thinking and free thought are active skills that run counter to the common passive acceptance of another person’s research, interpretation, opinion, facts and appraisal.  Critical thinking and free thought require an objective, open minded, rational, logical evaluation and analysis of information which is done actively and best when tested against other points of view or alternative explanations.  

Ways to mitigate confirmation bias

  1. Be a skeptic.  Always look at the source to figure out what kind of bias may be present and to what extent.  Has the source been reliable in the past?  Do they cover the whole story or could there be key details that have been ignored?  Does it make sense or are there a lot of inconsistencies or unanswered questions?  Are contrary views presented? Being skeptical does not mean becoming a cynic.  It just means staying open-minded to other possibilities and allowing yourself to step back and think about it for yourself to make sure it conforms to your math.
  2. Allow yourself to be wrong.  “When the facts change, I change my mind.” – John Maynard Keynes.  This sounds like simple advice but it is much harder to do in practice.  Humans can be stubborn and have a habit of defending their view even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. Do not fall into this trap. It is okay to be wrong, BUT it is not okay to stay wrong when the facts beg to differ.
  3. Challenge your ideas and beliefs.  Seek multiple information sources, surround yourself with people with diverse views, be open-minded to ideas that run counter to your own. You don’t have to necessarily change them but attempt to understand all sides.  If your current beliefs and attitudes are up to the test and prevail, then it just confirms what you believe is on the right path.  
  4. Be leary of repetition.  Repeating a stance or belief over and over again is used for intensity and effect. It is a tactic used by politicians, powerful corporations, public policy makers and religious leaders as a form of brainwashing wherein you start to believe something is true because you heard it so many times. If there is a lot of echoing going on, there may be reason to be extra skeptical.

It would be nice if content providers could do more to teach us how to think and less of telling us what to think.

Sarah’s Weight Management Corner
Cognitive dissonance is a New York “Thin” Slice. 

John’s Healthy Lifestyle Corner
Cognitive dissonance is Plant-Based Meat and eSports.