rating: 5 of 5 stars
Written by two social psychologists and based on years of research, it provides a fascinating overview of cognitive dissonance, and how it applies to prejudice, memory, law, marriage, and war. The most chilling point is how we are all subject to dealing with dissonance (usually in self-justifying ways), what we think we know or remember is probably not the case (regardless of which side we’re on), and most of our leaders and public figures shirk responsibility for their mistakes.
A few highlights:
- Reasoning areas of the brain “virtually shut down” when we are confronted with dissonant information, and emotion circuits light up when consonance is restored. Basically, this shows that there is a neurological basis for the fact that once we make up our minds, it is pretty hard to change them.
- Naïve realism – the “inescapable conviction” that we all have, that we see things as they really are. If someone has a different opinion they obviously aren’t seeing things clearly.
- Being “absolutely, positively sure” a memory is correct does not mean it is. We can have vivid false memories full of emotion and detail. People can recover memories of abuse, which is shown to be dubious, and even experience alien abduction without it actually happening. Basically, we can have experiences that we think are real, especially in the past… yet they never happened. Without some outside confirming source, we cannot trust our memories too much.
- Parent blaming – a convenient form of self-justification; it allows people to live with regrets or mistakes because all the mistakes were made “by them.”
- Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been guilty of self-justification and failure to admit their mistakes. The last president to clearly admit to a major mistake was John F. Kennedy. The two presidents to use the phrase “mistakes were made” the most were Richard Nixon (of course) and Ronald Reagan. What is so insidious about the phrase (which Clinton even joked about using so much) is that it is a complete avoidance of responsibility.
- Finally, resolving dissonance is not completely bad, and does serve to preserve our beliefs, confidence, and self-esteem. However, it also gets us into trouble. Hence, the authors suggest that it is possible to remain committed to a religion, political party, or partner, yet understand that “it is not disloyal to disagree with actions or policies” that one believes is inappropriate, misguided, or immoral.
May we all recognize when we are feeling dissonance, and rather than justify our actions or those of religious or political leaders, and stand up for what we believe. We do not disown a best friend when they do something we disagree with. But that does not mean we have to agree with them. “A friend is still a friend, and a mistake is still a mistake.” May we all learn to resolve dissonance in healthy ways when possible, and when it is not possible, learn to sit with it.