Cognitive Dissonance – Why We Can’t Just Get Along

I consider myself a lifelong observer of human nature. I love questioning and digging into motivations and why people respond and interact the way they do. I love people-watching. Since my people-watching opportunities are limited right now, I prefer opinion-stalking on social media.

Lately I have been wrestling with the concept of cognitive dissonance. Once you understand how it works, you can see it happening all over your newsfeeds.

Here is the definition: “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.”

What this means is when you encounter an opinion or belief contrary to your own, it causes a knee-jerk response of defensiveness, shutdown, or absolute denial that any belief system other than your own could potentially be true. It causes an inability to give anyone the benefit of the doubt because that may mean that your belief isn’t as rock solid as you thought, or maybe – you have been wrong.

For example, let’s bring up the topic of vaccination. This is a hot button topic for so many so it feels like a perfect example to start with. In fact, I can already sense you getting uncomfortable. In my observations, it seems to be more common to shut down someone and call them “anti-vaxxer” than to sit down and ask questions about their decisions and thought process. Why? Because if that person shares that their child was injured by a vaccine, and you have the belief that vaccines are completely safe, it may cause you to question whether you are opening up your own child to injury – and no parent wants to believe that. See? Cognitive dissonance. So we shut down, say those people are ignorant with their “Google degree,” and refuse to listen or give them the benefit of the doubt. I get it because I was once there, too. I didn’t want to consider an opposing view of vaccines.

Now, someone reading this is already shutting down and refusing to read the rest – so to that I would question, why? Why is this offensive to you? I would encourage you to dig into that and maybe sit down with someone who stopped vaccinating their child. You might find, like I did, that no parent chooses to make such an extreme decision for their child without doing a lot of research (beyond a Google search). I would even wager to guess that the majority of parents I know will do anything it takes to keep their kids safe – and that might look different from parent to parent. It may not change your mind, but at least it could create an environment of care and sympathy, something that often seems to be lacking in this controversial conversation.

white and blue crew neck t shirt

I’ll bring up another example to make you even more uncomfortable. White privilege. Systemic racism. “Systemic racism doesn’t exist.” I hear that from time to time. And when that belief gets challenged, it causes more shutdown, more defensiveness, and maybe some articles or videos thrown in. Cognitive dissonance causes such an internal storm that it makes it nearly impossible to listen to anything other than your view. But remember, like my first example, just because you haven’t experienced something yourself doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. For those who don’t believe in white privilege or systemic racism, I’d encourage you to sit down with a person of color. Talk to them about their experience. Listen to their stories. As I mentioned above, you don’t have to change your mind, but maybe you could show someone you care enough to consider an alternate perspective.

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