Cognitive dissonance and breaking

In the light of my last post I thought I´d probably do best adhere to strictly rational thinking. I read some skeptical views on recovered memories and quack therapies and again and again I was told that one main reason why people stick to false beliefs even after being faced with contrary evidence is cognitive dissonance.

Every theory on the human mind and soul has its list of sins. On some lists, the sins are selfishness and narcissism. On the list of rational thinking, the mortal sin is giving in to cognitive dissonance.

The effects of cognitive dissonance are, of course, depressing. “I mustn´t be wrong so I can´t be wrong”, or “being wrong would be too costly for me personally, so I simply ignore the facts”. This is painful for the individual in question, too, though. It is not “the easy way out”. If that´s the easy way out, I don´t want to know what the hard way is. I think skeptics are taking the easy way out if they treat giving in to cognitive dissonance as a mere character flaw which they themselves are above. I´m not saying that´s what all of them do this, but I rarely see people treating the issue with a whole lot of sympathy.

I think cognitive dissonance is one of the most powerful psychological forces there are. I think it´s ultimately what is behind breaking people. Take a look at 1984: Winston wanting to give up Julia to save himself from the rats is so at odds with his love for her that after doing this he cannot feel love for her anymore.

I think about my reaction to understanding what my priorities were with regards to Lola: “That isn´t me.” Acting like my obsession was more important than my best friend was indeed “not me”. Just one year before Lola herself had told me that she wouldn´t know what to do without me because I was such a good listener. I was generally known as a good friend. Nobody could understand what was happening. And neither could I. How could my obsession be more important than a friend who had been through terrible things? I couldn´t find an even remotely sensible reason. Not even a psychological mechanism. It was as irrational as a rat phobia.

I always sensed there was a connection between Winston´s and my situation. A few months after Lola´s letter I was close to putting it into words when I wrote: “How do you make a person want the wrong things? Make him do the wrong things!” It was more complicated, though, than mere brainwashing or an ideological conversion. What happens in Room101 is psychological mutilation. In my case, that mutilation was accidental.

If cognitive dissonance can kill off two peoples´ love for each other, then we shouldn´t ever take it lightly. “The truth hurts, suck it up!” is not a solution. If cognitive dissonance is a universal psychological power that has the same effect on everyone, then there´s no point in judging people who are deformed by it. Maybe you´ve just been luckier than them. Essentially, it can happen to everyone. Statements like the one above deepen the cognitive dissonance and the shame. They are part of the problem.

If we accept that our identity is a construct based on a narrative of our lives, then cognitive dissonance rips holes into that narrative. Our identities don´t work anymore. We need new narratives which explain how we could do something that is not who we are. Maybe we´ll find reasons for our behavior we can identify with. I tried that. A lot. I tried real and imaginary reasons. It didn´t work.

I wonder what Winston would have done if he´d still had the psychological capacities for doing anything at all other than getting drunk. And the logical step would have been to look into his past for anything that justifies his rat phobia. I´m sure he would gladly have made up any horror story just to be able to love Julia again. Or at least bear look at himself in the mirror.

This has nothing to do with being particularly narcissistic. This accusation is similarly cruel as the “suck it up” response. They are, at their core, the same thing.

Now all I´m wondering about is how you cure this.


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