I have written about cognitive dissonance here before (here, here, here, here and here). In brief, cognitive dissonance is holding two contradicting ideas in your head at the same time and the emotional discomfort that causes.
Cognitive dissonance is something that we all experience to one degree or another on a fairly continuos basis. Most of the time, the dissonance is easily and painlessly resolved simply by making a decision. For example, say you know that you need complete a project deadline by the day after tomorrow and you have planned on completing it today, but then you get a call from a friend asking you to go out for lunch and shopping. You feel unease because you know you need to get the project done. If you decide to work on the project instead of go with your friend, you have resolved the dissonance and the unease gone now that you know you will complete your project today. If, on the other hand, you decide to go with your friend, the dissonance remains. You justify your decision by telling yourself that you have all day tomorrow to complete the project. In this case you haven’t really resolved the dissonance, but you have rationalized it to yourself effectively enough so that you are able to go out and enjoy your time with your friend, even if the dissonance may be nagging at you in the back of your mind.
We deal with situations like this all the time. The vast majority of times, we resolve it by making a decision that makes the dissonance go away. Sometimes, we choose to let the dissonance remain and we rationalize it away in order to allow ourselves to function without the emotional discomfort.
In situations where the dissonance involves a very important idea to us though, it becomes much harder to remove the dissonance because that could mean making a very big change in our worldview. A good example of this is religious belief.
I was a devout believer in god for much of my life, but was constantly changing my reasons for believing because the more I thought about it the more I saw that the evidence for god’s existence was non-existence. For a while I found ways to rationalize the dissonance that arose from keeping the ideas of a perfectly good and loving god and of suffering and evil in the world in my head at the same time. Eventually, I could no longer justify away the dissonance and accompanying emotion distress without abandoning either my rational, scientific view of the world, or my belief in god. As those of you who have been regular readers of this blog know, I abandoned the later.
How we deal with cognitive dissonance has huge implications for our society’s future because those who are devout believers in god are actively trying to interfere with and limit government funding for much important scientific research. From climate change to stem cell research, vital research into subjects that will have a profound impact on our future is in danger.
I will be continuing to research, think about, and write about cognitive dissonance and what can be done to successfully deal with it here on this blog.