Archive for cognitive dissonance

The compulsion to entertain false beliefs

Posted in health, mental health, personal with tags , , , , , , on February 9, 2014 by theweirdphilosopher

If I have any aim in my personal development (which is far from linear), it is achieving what I would call one possible definition of sanity: The absence of any internal psychological compulsion to believe something radically false.

In my view, such a compulsion would not so much stem from genuinely unconscious motives, memories and impulses, but rather from cognitive dissonance. I have had my fair share of experience with false beliefs and delusions based on cognitive dissonance, and maybe even more than my fair share. While someone who clings to an obviously deluded opinion which is completely out of line with his original ideas and his very own interests might not technically be psychotic, his reality testing is obviously impaired. Not by any traceable illness, but, as it seems, by his foolish attempts at avoiding an injury to his self-esteem. And that, for anyone with intellectual standards, is a humiliating place to be in.

It is a situation that shows me my personal limits like no other. Right from the start, there have always been times when I tried to believe the opposite of beliefs I knew to be false, and yet as soon as I stopped intentionally agonizing over how wrong I was, the false beliefs would slip back in place. Not completely, more in the sense of double bookkeeping. My previous realization that specific beliefs of mine were false would remain without consequence. I would, for example, acknowledge that my family was not actually abusive, and yet still perceive and treat them as hostile. When noticing my behavior, I would seek rationalizations for it which relied on very sinister interpretations of events that, other than my original stories, had actually taken place, thus making my explanations seemingly conform to reality as I knew it while still having the necessary exonerating effect.

From what I´ve gathered, some studies on cognitive dissonance show that people who are faced with contrary arguments or even evidence tend to cling to their opinions even more fiercely. If that is the case, then telling myself how wrong I am and agonizing over my foolishness and the embarrassment of it is actually going to predispose me for another relapse! And yet this is precisely the “cure” I´ve been administering whenever I came close enough to even seeing in which way I was ill.

The motive behind that line of action was my idea that in order to cleanse or rid myself of the past, I had to suffer for it. I still sort of sympathize with this view, but I might be overlooking the price I already payed. Fact is, most of the things I agonize over happened 10+ years ago, so my whole occupation with them doesn´t seem quite adequate in the first place. But that aside, those are 10 years which could have been productive. Productive, happy, adventurous. They were so to some extent, and I wouldn´t want to miss most of them, but there was always an element of gloom and self-loathing which wouldn´t have needed to be there.

I do need to sort out my belief system. But I´m doing myself and my connection to reality a great disservice if I try to make it intentionally painful. It is my good days, not my bad days that brought me to the point of even recognizing my errors. I said before that depression is an enemy of the truth. You have a much greater chance of looking at things objectively if you decrease the need to interpret everything in your favour. Depression, however, only makes you more sensitive towards anything that could be seen as failure.

I fear that I cannot muster up the mental strength to reality-test my beliefs. Some people in my past have hurt me a great deal with what they said, and I don´t know if I could stand coming to the conclusion that they were justified in doing so. The thought evokes a sense of despair, like: Was I right in absolutely nothing? Can´t I even rely on the notion that what hurts me cannot be alright? Unfortunately, that is pretty much what going crazy does to you.

Already we are back in the realm of self-punishment. Torturing myself with such ideas gives me a certain sense of satisfaction, at least as long as I can stand them even though I initially thought I couldn´t. It might actually be useful of sorts, but, like I said: Only if I can stand it. If I realize I can´t and stop, I have renewed the cognitive dissonance and in turn my need to entertain false beliefs.

Maybe this phenomenon can be compared to exposure therapy in the treatment of anxiety disorder. It is only effective if the patient makes the experience that he can stand the situation he was scared of. If he ends it prematurely, he makes the opposite experience. Today anxiety patients frequently receive drug treatment, too, so they have to work through less fear during the exposure in the first place, rendering success more likely. Similarly, if I was less depressed, I would probably be more tolerant towards the idea that I was wrong and that others were right telling me so and reacting negatively to it even though it was torture for me at the time. By accepting this idea, I could free myself from the need for it to not be true, which would open up the possibility of looking at the whole thing with fresh eyes.

There are still some therapists, however, who believe that drug treatment takes away from the effectiveness of exposure therapy because the patient isn´t forced to confront the real extent of his anxiety. Likewise, some have the idea that those who take antidepressants don´t want to face themselves. I´m inclined to believe, though, that a stable mood actually facilitates this task.


Cognitive dissonance and breaking

Posted in health, mental health, morbid, personal with tags , , , , , , on February 27, 2013 by theweirdphilosopher

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.