Friday, June 7, 2013

On Cognitive Dissonance, or How We Reinforce Our Beliefs

We all go through life with a set of solid, well established beliefs. We acquire some of them from our parents, other ones in a process of our education, and some we seek out on our own, settling into something comfortable and familiar that drives our everyday lives.

This process of establishing one's identity is interesting, but what is even more captivating, from my point of view, is how we hold on to those beliefs throughout our lives. After all, we get most of them in our formative years, when we are young and easily influenced. However, we manage to hold on to many of them for the rest of our lives, even when they don't make sense, even when facts and everyday experiences tell us there are absolutely no reasons behind them.

This ranges from deeply "spiritual" beliefs, to those that might affect our health (e.g. alternative medicine vs. science-based medicine), to something as mundane as superstitions (knock on wood anyone?). I've been always fascinated with how this works... people, who are seemingly very rational, who pride themselves in conducting their daily lives based only on rational, methodical decisions, who spend better part of their education in science, can completely disregard reason and logical thinking when it comes to some beliefs, which seem to be completely immune from any criticism and skepticism. How many rational people would use oscillococcinum, or echinacea for cold, even though there is no clinical evidence that they work. Why do we ridicule homeopathy, but think that some other alternative medicine modality will help? Why do we laugh at beliefs from other parts of the world, but get offended when someone does the same to our own convictions?

Of course, in psychology, this is not a new question. A theory of cognitive dissonance has been around since 1957, and it states:
The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.[1] It is the distressing mental state that people feel when they "find themselves doing things that don't fit with what they know, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold."[4] A key assumption is that people want their expectations to meet reality, creating a sense of equilibrium.[5] Likewise, another assumption is that a person will avoid situations or information sources that give rise to feelings of uneasiness, or dissonance.
Even better source of popular information about this fascinating topic is a book by Caroll Tavris and Elliot Aronson: "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts".

It is easy, in line with the theory of cognitive dissonance, to point mistakes in others, to see their foolishness and stupidity, but much harder to do the same to ourselves. As great physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Richard Feynman once said:
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."
But the first step of not fooling yourself is the knowledge of the principles and psychological mechanisms of such processes. Questioning every belief, and every idea, seemingly set in stone, is the only way to weed out the nonsense and superstition.