“Don’t downgrade your dream just to fit your reality. Upgrade your conviction to match your destiny”.
Cognitive dissonance is an important subject in psychology, but also in our everyday lives, as it explains a lot of things we experience, and also decisions made by individuals, both in their lives but also at social (relational) and even national level. A good knowledge of this subject is therefore essential.
To put it simply, cognitive dissonance appears when what we know comes into contact with what we perceive, or when the (known) output clashes with the (new) input. Beliefs can clash, ideas can clash, values can clash, but often one person can see her inner beliefs, ideas or values contradicted by the evidence, by the exterior world. These are sources of significant distress and the person has one task: to find a solution to this contradiction and reduce the discomfort, the dissonance. People will always aim to find solutions for this problem, as they aim for consistency and harmony. How they manage to make peace between what is old and what is new, between the old cognition and the new cognition, defines them at a pretty deep level.
Mathematically, the degree of conflict varies with the importance of the cognitions that come into play. Then, it depends on “how dear to their heart” people hold their convictions (how important they are for them), but also on how strong is the evidence of the new cognition (if it has the power to shake them fundamentally or not). To make things simple, I will call the old cognition expectation and the new cognition reality (the perceived reality, to be precise). So, dissonance happens when expectations and reality collide.
If forced to solve dissonances, people will take several paths or use several strategies.
One strategy is to change or upgrade their expectations, by changing their attitudes, their behavior and their inner rules. For instance, if I’m fat and this puts me in danger, I will start a diet, do some sport, and eventually lose weight. What I knew (the old cognition, namely the fact that I have a normal weight) has been contradicted by the evidence (the new cognition, the fact that I have some extra kilos), and I made the choice to reduce my dissonance by altering what I knew and acting out a new behavior (diet, sport, etc.). This strategy is the most logical/rational approach and, unsurprisingly, is the least used by people. Why? Because people are not only thinking robots, but are also emotional beings, and this complicates life a lot.
Another strategy involves changing reality by distortion, which is a primitive defensive mechanism. If the first strategy involved changing expectations/convictions/output, the second strategy involves changing the new input, altering it in a more or less significant way. Using the same example, I can say to myself (and ultimately convince myself) that cheating the diet once in a while will not do much harm (although it certainly does). Or I can say to myself that I will do extra physical effort to burn more calories (something I won’t do in the end). Basically, I will try to delude myself. And I will succeed. By successfully distorting reality, by becoming delusional, I will reduce my inner cognitive dissonance, at the cost of reality testing (reality testing = accurately perceiving reality). This will make me less rational but more peaceful inside, restoring some of my lost inner harmony. It is, if you want, a contamination of reason by emotions, or the act of sacrificing reality for the sake of illusions.
A third strategy is similar to the second one, but instead of changing reality through distortion, the new reality is rejected altogether. This time, the used defensive mechanism is denial, and it is also a primitive defense. Ignoring or denying the new perception means that I will either say to myself that eating some sugar won’t do any harm (in fact, this will make me gain even more weight) or I will say to myself that I’m not so fat (although, from the medical perspective, I certainly am). This last strategy rejects completely logic/reason/new perceptions and takes into consideration only what I want, what I believe to be true.
The last two strategies are abundantly used by people all over the world, both at individual level but also at relational and national level.
Now, you can read a lot about cognitive dissonance in any encyclopedia or psychology book of your choice. But I believe that arid theory without examples is a waste of time. Also, without my personal touch, this article would be just another article explaining the phenomenon.
So as to put it simpler, cognitive dissonance is the conflict between “what is” and “what you want”, or between “what is rational” and “what is emotional”. Rational people tend to look at life straight into the eye and see reality as it is; they make decisions relying on what is real and they do what is correct, what is logical. Emotional people tend to look at life through the lens or the prism of their desires, indirectly, through the signification of what is, using symbols and subjective perceptions; they will equally make decisions on what brings harmony to their lives, disregarding both logic and consequences. There is, of course, a mixture of these two types of people, as life is not as simple as that, but generally, you can easily see to what category a person belongs by looking at her preferred strategies.
In my native country, cognitive dissonances are habitually solved by denial and distortion. As a nation, we prefer to change reality or to refuse it. For instance, other countries or transnational corporations or elite groups are guilty for the bad shape of our economy, and it is not our own fault for not taking care of our own home. I hear on a daily basis that the rich Jewish people who rule the world want to destroy Romania. I hear daily that the European Union wants us to be a colony where it can sell its goods. I read daily that extraterrestrials dressed in human skins are radiating the population with psychotronic weapons of mass destruction that inhibit motivation and generate depression and sickness. I hear daily that Illuminati, the Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Zionists, the Freemasons, the Queen of the UK, the Pope from Vatican, the Russians, the Americans, the Hungarians, the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the Catholics, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Reptilians… all these… are guilty for our suffering. I hear daily that the Austrian companies are abusively cutting the forests of Romania and then take away the wood so as to resell it back at three times the price. I hear daily the government saying that the fault lies on the shoulders of the previous government or governments. I hear daily the Left blaming the Right and vice versa. But I never hear someone saying that “It is my freaking fault!” or “It is our freaking fault!”
Think about it for a minute! Why would this entire army of enemies have something to do or something to share with us, a small nation in East Europe? I tell you why: because, being a small irrelevant country, we have grown a superiority complex. So, additional to the cognition that “they are all against us”, we also have another cognition that “we are better than them” and therefore, this justifies their aggression, why they want to finish us. Yeah, I know what you think: the Romanians must be a nation of paranoid schizophrenics. And you may be right, but it is not paranoia, but rather (self-)induced delirium due to an excessive use of irrationality, of distortion and denial.
Did you know that here, in Romania, is the homeland, the origin of the Indo-European ancient population? Did you know that the Dacians, the ancestors of nowadays Romanians, are the forefathers of the Etruscans who later founded Rome and the Roman Empire, and it is us, not the Romans, who brought civilization in Europe and the rest of the world? Did you know that, between His childhood and His last moments, Jesus Christ came to what is now Romania to… learn… what He knew and what He preached? Doing miracles included. Have you ever heard about the Pelasgians and the Hyperboreans who taught the Greeks what they later left as legacy to the world? The Pelasgians or Hyperboreans were ancient Romanians too. Everything you can think about has come from Romania and only Romania. Here is the Center, the Axis Mundi. From here life has spread all over the world. And, to tell you a secret, we, the First Ones, have been taught all these things by the extraterrestrials who descended from the sky exactly here, in the Romanian Carpathian Mountains.
Are you shocked? You shouldn’t be!
I suppose that each insignificant nation of this world has similar myths and similar excuses and similar justifications for its inability to flourish. And it is exactly this kind of lies that we tell to ourselves each day that prevents us from getting the hell out of the swamp we’re in. And, as the world evolves and we’re progressively left behind, we turn even more paranoid and vehement and passionate, trying to correct the gradually increasing discrepancy between reality and our delusions. As the cognitive dissonance becomes bigger and bigger, and the gap between reason and imagination grows larger and larger, we find it harder and harder to lie ourselves. So as to do this, we need to go even more to the extremes, to pretend that our economy is booming and the professional level of our elite is outstanding. The problem with the advertised economic and intellectual and financial boom is that is can literally make… boom!
We are not the most cognitively dissonant nation out there… History shows us other people who struggled with delusions and denial. Most of those nations have collapsed or died. Where is the mighty Roman Empire now? Where is the Persian Empire? Even the Mayans thought they’re immortal and now they don’t even have a country of their own, being part of Mexico! Then, look at the Germans: they wanted to change the world and make it pure; they started World War I and lost because people refused their offer. But instead of learning from this and adjusting their cognitive dissonance, they played again on their illusions and started World War II, which they lost again. Finally, they corrected their perception and acknowledged that their way of life is not suitable to or enjoyed by everyone. But what about us, Romanians? Are we going to learn to accept our flaws and move on, using the first strategy, or continue with our strategies of delusion? I guess time and history will tell if we remain on the map or if we continue our existence… in history books only.
Cognitive dissonance can be found everyday and everywhere. Keeping an eye open and remembering what I wrote above will help you see interesting patterns. Knowing the theory might help you begin to accept what happens around you, why people make this or that choice. This also explains why so many people are kept in the chains of hope; they hope that everything will be fine (old cognition) while reality contradicts them (new cognition), and so they wait even more (emotional strategy) instead of actually doing something (rational strategy) to get out of their nasty situation. Ironically, I have also seen people waiting enough (for a reason, rationally) so as to get what they want, instead of running away (too soon, emotionally), so just by looking at what somebody does can’t tell you accurately if he/she is delusional or not. There is strategy in patience as well.
I gave the practical example of cognitive dissonance at national level, but there will likely be many more examples of relational or individual dissonances in my future articles. But for now, I leave you with what I’ve wrote. So do take time to ponder on it.
By the way, the motto at the beginning of the article comes from an author specialized in the Bible, Stuart Scott. Reading it again now, at the end of my lecture, could give you an idea about where many of our cognitive dissonances come from…