Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What is Cognitive Dissonance and How Does it Affect People?

Cognitive Dissonance is a term used in Psychology describing the uncomfortable feelings you feel when you are holding onto two or more conflicting ideas, beliefs, or values. As we grow, we start to develop ideas and belief systems from our parents and those around us in our environment. Parents pass down lifestyle, religious, political, and personal opinions that become deeply ingrained in the way we perceive life and conduct ourselves in it. Our social interactions, personal habits, and religious views are all built on these influences and significant experiences we live through. These become our belief systems with which we function.

A problem arises when we are presented with evidence that contradicts one of these deeply held beliefs. A more open-minded person will sit down and think or meditate on it, and find some way to alter their beliefs to incorporate this new evidence. A close-minded person will reject the new evidence and strengthen their belief system with thoughts and behaviors that may be irrational. For instance, if someone is raised in a strict religion that believes all people who do not believe the way they do are doomed to spend an eternity in their hell, but is then presented with a kind, gentle, enlightened person that spends their days thinking of others, they must either accept the flaws in their belief system and change them or reinforce their belief system in some manner that will make that belief more extreme, such as avoiding all people who do not share their belief or making efforts to convert the enlightened person to their way of thinking.
When someone experiences cognitive dissonance, it is too uncomfortable to be ignored, and we are forced to reduce it or erase it. I believe it to be a great force in raising our consciousness and shedding outdated belief systems that separate us and cause conflict. On a smaller scale, it is the same feeling that spreads through populations during times of war and suffering. It is an intuitive tap on the shoulder telling you your belief system isn’t working for you and your society anymore. It is a way of being nudged down a healthier life path and making more sound personal resolutions. For those of us that feel they are a bit more open-minded, it is less painful to experience cognitive dissonance. For those of us still tightly wound around certain belief systems and ways of life, I believe resistance causes intense discomfort, and if avoided or ignored, can cause great sadness, dysfunction, and even physical sickness.

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