Cognitive Dissonance and Self Improvement

One of the biggest problems humans face, both individually and as a species, is how to recognise and benefit from cognitive dissonance. In simple terms, cognitive dissonance is that feeling you experience when someone or something forces you to realise that you believe in two things that cannot exist together. One of your beliefs must be wrong. Often this occurs when we espouse an ideal, and then a gut reaction or deep seated emotion inclines us to act in a way that is contradictory to our stated ideal. This discomfort can be profound, and often causes people who experience it to completely put the matter out of their minds, and in so doing pass up both the immediate benefit of learning and a significant opportunity for personal growth.

I have had several experiences of this sensation recently, and because I was able to recognise the feeling, I was able to slow down and have a serious think about why I was feeling that way, and how to reconcile my feelings with my ideals. In one instance, a person was making an appeal about not using discriminatory language pejoratively. This is a topic I feel strongly about: you should never use someone’s identity to insult someone else. And yet on some level I felt like some of the words the person had listed should be able to be used without respect for their former (and now quite dated) technical meaning. The discrimination in question was ableism — the discrimination of those of “normal” physical and mental ability against those with below average ability — and the word I just couldn’t get over banning from my own lexicon was the word “idiot.”

I was convinced, and deeply felt at the time (to the extent that I even started writing a passionate response on the topic), that there are people to whom the word idiot applies. Of course people who tend to disagree with me make up a significant portion of that list. But the word idiot has a problematic history, being for some time used as the clinical term applied to a person whose IQ falls in a particular (well below average) range. I agreed with the principle of the article, but I felt strongly that I should still be able to discriminate and insult people based on their intellect (or lack thereof).

I have still not entirely worked through this cognitive dissonance. Even writing this, now, several days later I feel a twinge. I am an intellectual elitist, of sorts. I do not consider myself a better person than someone who has less education than myself, but at the same time I highly prize and respect those who are intelligent and make use of their intellect for the good of society and humanity. By extension, someone who makes poor choices in defiance of their intellectual ability loses a measure of my respect. I am now refraining from calling these individuals idiots, because I think being a good person is more important than being a smart person, and not using a word that others have asked you not to use is good. Still, part of me still wants to castigate these people, and others like them, for their lack of intellectual acuity and foresight. I cannot do this using the words I would normally resort to, and that is both uncomfortable and difficult.

This struggle is where growth happens. If you never challenge your own ideas and ideals, you will live a life blissfully free of this discomfort. Many religious groups propagate certain beliefs that exist solely to create environments to allow people to do this — after all, if anything disagrees with or questions the truth of the religion, it must be a work of evil or temptation created by an adversary to test the faith of the true believers. Finding this form of thought structure — the sacred unquestionable — should be a warning sign that you have abandoned the search for truth, and entered the territory of faith. While a little faith may be a good thing for peace of mind, if it serves the purpose of making you comfortable in the face of opposition, it needs to be examined now and then. Without self-examination, and a little doubt and questioning, you will never uncover false foundations on which you have built your view of the world.

It is only by facing difficult truths with absolute clarity and honesty that we can genuinely change our minds. And a mind that cannot be changed is no different from an ant: a mechanical construction of programming and logic that unthinkingly follows its orders until it is spent and replaced. Without facing the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, without facing the challenge of reconciling the irreconcilable, we cannot learn. Without learning our lives have already ended.