If there’s one common theme that resonates across Western democracies this past year, it’s a rejection of the status quo. Some outsider politicians have ridden this wave of populism to political office or to strong second-place finishes, stretching the boundaries of political expression. Frustration, anger with the status quo, globalization and the tradeoffs that come with it, and inequality are all basic concerns of the voters catapulting these politicians to power.
Globally, it also seems that fault lines have been erected between cultures, religions, genders, and so on.
Regardless of where the frustration comes from, though, polarization along ideological lines and negative rhetoric are pervasive. While polarization is a complex issue (and not something we can explain in its entirety in a blog post), how people process information is a significant factor.
If people are not open to other viewpoints or do not think critically about the negative rhetoric they encounter— which often involves self-reflection— then how can change really be achieved? How can the frustration fueling the polarization be addressed if we cannot compromise?
What is cognitive dissonance?
Leon Festinger published a theory of cognitive dissonance in 1957, changing the way psychologists look at decision-making, compliance, and opinion formation. Essentially, the theory of cognitive dissonance asserts that people do not like to hold conflicting thoughts because it complicates decision-making and often results in unpleasant realizations about ourselves and our perspectives. As a result of the psychological unpleasantness of conflicting thoughts, people are motivated to change their opinions, attitudes, or behavior, sometimes in irrational or maladaptive ways.
For example, perhaps I want to sign up for Thai language classes, but I also enjoy relaxing in my free time and don’t want to put in the effort required to learn. These two thoughts— also known as cognitions—are problematic because if I do not take classes, then I will not learn Thai, and if I really want to learn Thai then I cannot be lazy. These types of cognitions are referred to as “dissonant”.
How we deal with cognitive dissonance
Since cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, people will attempt to harmonize their thoughts through a variety of mental tricks like denial, rationalization, and willful ignorance.
One way to overcome cognitive dissonance is by ignoring or eliminating the dissonant cognitions by changing one or more of the beliefs, opinions, or behaviors. By pretending that I can learn a new language without much effort, I can postpone my studies or study very little.
Another way to overcome cognitive dissonance is to alter the importance of certain thoughts. By either deciding that relaxing after work is much more important or that learning a language isn't that important, the problem of dissonance can be lessened. If one of the dissonant cognitions outweighs the other in importance, the mind has less difficulty dealing with the dissonance.
Yet another way that people react to cognitive dissonance is by acquiring new information or beliefs that will increase the agreement among thoughts and thus cause the overall dissonance to lessen. By creating or emphasizing new cognitions, I can overwhelm the fact that I know I must take Thai language classes. For instance, I can emphasize new cognitions such as "I am too stressed or tired after work to study" or "I can study on my own, outside of class". These new cognitions lessen the dissonance, as I now have multiple reasons to not sign up for classes, and only one, which says I should.
Finally, if someone is presented with information that is dissonant from what they already know, the easiest way to deal with this new information is to ignore it, refuse to accept it, or simply avoid that type of information in general. Thus, a new study that says people learn new languages best through a combination of independent study and interaction with other Thai speakers would be easily dealt with by ignoring it. Further, future problems can be prevented by simply avoiding that type of information— by refusing to read studies on education, not visiting websites that promote language classes, etc.
How cognitive dissonance perpetuates conflict
Conflict, particularly those based on identity such as an ethnic conflict, can be perpetuated by cognitive dissonance. However, the effects of cognitive dissonance can be found on all levels of conflict. Individuals on both sides of a debate can be unwilling to look at new information about the other side's position in an attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance. This concept helps explain why people are so opposed to counterarguments, especially regarding a value or belief that is very important to them. It should also be remembered that in most cases people have not arrived at their beliefs overnight. Even people who erroneously think their beliefs are scientific may come by their notions gradually and their commitment also escalates gradually, making a change in belief difficult to bear and tricky to explain to friends. Thus, cognitive dissonance is so unpleasant that individuals would often rather be close-minded than deal with the repercussions of cognitive dissonance.
How cognitive dissonance can reduce conflict
In spite of people's desire to avoid it, cognitive dissonance can be a useful tool in overcoming conflict. Creating dissonance forces people to react, inducing behavior or attitude change. Dialogue is one method to produce cognitive dissonance and is usually one of the first steps to be taken after civil war or inter-ethnic violence. While people do not leave dialogue sessions having changed sides or agreeing on the politics and policy of an issue, they do come away with a new understanding for people "on the other side" and hopefully, acknowledgement that logical, rational, "good" people can feel the opposite way and conflict -- particularly violent conflict -- can be reduced and eliminated.
Disarming behaviors are another way to create cognitive dissonance. This is done by simply learning what the other side thinks of or expects of you, and then doing something very different. Just doing this once may not be enough to change anyone's attitudes or behavior, as they are likely to ignore the dissonant information, however, if it is done several times and the behavior is visible so that it cannot be ignored, the results are sometimes striking. Two diplomatic examples disarming behavior were Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's unexpected trip to Israel in 1977 and Soviet Premier Gorbachev's trip to the United States in 1990. Neither leader had ever visited the “enemy” country before so when they did, they were so affable that it changed the minds of the Israelis and the Americans about the "goodness" and intents of "the enemy."
A personal call to action
Yes, it is true that there are people who know what they are doing is wrong, and they continue to do it anyway. This, however, cannot explain the majority of people who digest news, scan social media posts, or talk to their friends. Many people want to bolster their own beliefs and discredit those they disagree with, which in some cases is a valid objective, however, it should be done with open eyes and open ears whenever possible. We need to increase interpersonal communication and contact to produce dissonance, break down stereotypes, and start building trust where none existed before.
In this new environment of polarized news and polarized politics, forming ideas becomes a game of “all or nothing”. So I remind you of Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” in which he wrote “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.) We do not need to force ourselves into hardline positions that divide us from our neighbors. We can embrace our complexity. And we can listen to our friends without imposing our own beliefs-- we may end up learning something in the process.