Cognitive Dissonance & Cultural Breakdown

Lauren Reiff
Feb 14 · 6 min read

As humans, we tend to have overconfidence in what we actually believe and an overrated notion of the rationality of those beliefs. If pressed to describe how we arrive at our beliefs, we might enthusiastically relate a process of logic and level-headed reasoning.

But the truth is, the vast majority of our beliefs do not emerge from the noble halls of logic. Here’s an example: overwhelmingly, we sink our teeth into a particular ideology and its basket of political positions in lieu of patiently reasoning through singular issues in an individual manner — which would appear to be the more “intelligent” option.

The reason? The latter is hard to do, doesn’t necessarily feel natural to us, takes a lot of time, and most of all, tends to leave cognitive dissonance in its wake. Cognitive dissonance is a topic of relevance, I believe, in the sense that more and more people appear to show the signs of conflict between what their ideological loyalties teach that they should think and what they actually think. Merely the strength of “outrage culture” nowadays is one such sign that I’ll explain in a moment.

Cognitive dissonance is best described as the discomfort that arises when we realize our beliefs don’t line up or we otherwise find that our actions are incompatible with our beliefs. It’s a term long aquatinted with the psychological field, and as such it’s often couched in the context of the flawed individual. However, cognitive dissonance is actually a primary ingredient in the process of cultural breakdown.

Importantly, this is mostly due to how people react to the presence of conflicting beliefs and evidence. And increasingly, that reaction nowadays tends to be something along the lines of outrage at our political/cultural enemies. (Interestingly, almost all of culture now is steeped in political influence.)

We lament the territorial viscousness of politics in our present moment. Our current political environment is often described in the telling language of “heat” and “friction”. There’s a quick, rough assumption that you can make here based on these observations: People generally have some subconscious awareness of their philosophic incongruence and this underlying discomfort can make them lash out in anger. A reaction of hot defensiveness is a symptom of unresolved tension, broadly speaking. And not only do many people have tension swimming between the various ideological beliefs they subscribe to, so too do many of them have a war playing out between what they actually think and what they think they’re supposed to think.

This dilemma is at the core of what is inherently problematic with ideologies. In the U.S. for instance, our political factions largely divide into the two massive camps of Democrats and Republicans which each come outfitted with their pre-made modes of belief, set of accepted reactions, and loyalties to the emotional minefields of topics such as money, virtue, ownership, and tolerance, to name a few.

The problem with political ideologies, in this instance, is that plenty of the time there’s a pressure to automatically endorse your chosen party’s position — even if you may have misgivings, find a position on a particular issue incongruent with another party position, or otherwise think that the issue is too complicated to arrive at a black-and-white answer on.

In an interesting configuration, there’s a mounting pressure to be loyal to a certain ideology at the expense of developing your own beliefs via the necessary inputs of time and thought. I struggle to describe the difference between the two but I might pose it this way: The former is somewhat artificial, the latter is more genuine. Politics is so scripted and rigid nowadays that there’s a pre-formulated, deemed “correct” response to everything so that people are naturally driven to privately muse about issues less and adhere to this script above all else more.

I’ve written about the inherent danger of ideologies before, describing them as operating in the following manner

“. . . They offer a simplistic view of the world, cutting cleanly through the complexity, no questions asked, and establishing a seductive semblance of us vs. them. In a sense, ideologies grant a person intellectual protection by substituting a preconceived, mass-produced framework for the effort and mental torment of actual, individual thought. Ideologies are like shortcuts. . .”

This is my speculation, but, the effects of cognitive dissonance are more pronounced in our current environment, I believe, because people cling to ideologies a bit more automatically. This reflexive defensiveness is a natural result of the intensified fighting between Democrats and Republicans and the chasm that has widened separating the two camps. When challenged, we tend to respond by hardening our beliefs, even if those beliefs might stand to be challenged.

Sometimes, the online outrage that we witness over various political and cultural debates is less righteous anger and more unresolved tension between what we are saying and what we actually believe. Sometimes it’s the case that subconsciously, we’re just less certain about what we believe that we publicly purport to be. Keep in mind that anger has always been a surefire sign of personal unrest, which is why I conjecture that there’s psychological import to the way that one’s opinions are presented nowadays.

The consequence of all this is that ideological certainty becomes a kind of moral victory. But “ideological certainty” doesn’t necessarily translate to healthy confidence in one’s beliefs. It can, in fact, mean blind obedience to the doctrine of your particular camp without you having engaged in any actual thought yourself.

People like holding confident beliefs more than they like the process of thinking, you see. And when we exist in an environment of inflamed political and cultural polarization, we tend to discount the merits of having equivocal positions on issues, on having conflicting thoughts, and — as annoyingly pretentious as this sounds — on having “nuanced” conversations.

In fact, all of the previously mentioned are not only overlooked of their actual benefits but they’re expressly frowned-upon. Disillusionment with the ideological certainty in either side of political or cultural debates is thought of as gloomily gray territory, unimpressive, even a little shameful. But the truth is, it’s good to be aware of contradictions and it’s good to struggle with the tenants of what you purport to believe in.

It’s not a crime to invoke the complexity of certain issues in lieu of latching onto a rigid view in all its moral absolutist glory (which is rather common nowadays). As a side note: the truth of a lot of moral absolutist claims you hear is that they don’t translate to honest, noble conviction. They actually signal a kind of insecurity — they hint at the terror a person feels about the nature of a world that is more complex than they would like to believe.

Take identity politics: If you’re a women on the Left, for example, you’re supposed to subscribe to the idea that you’re maligned by certain ingrained societal forces — aka, “the patriarchy”. It’s a somewhat militant idea inside the camp of the Left and to criticize it is akin to trespassing on sacred moral ground. And as fierce as the feminism contingent is in this case, equally fierce are their detractors.

This is not to say that people’s views are necessarily radical due to this example of cultural polarization, but they are rigid. And in all honesty, I struggle to describe what’s insufficient about this setup. Who am I to say that people’s beliefs aren’t perfectly justified? Why question that they’re half-baked, for example?

I suppose it is just my general hunch that if people really, honestly thought about what they believed in instead of clinging to what they think they’re supposed to believe in, they’d be less. . . angry? More even-tempered? Maybe we’d be less mired in identity politics if people “thought for themselves” more? In truth, I’m far from squared-away on this diagnosis, other than knowing a nagging feeling persists that there’s this general cognitive dissonance sloshing around in our culture.

But of this I am certain: Cognitive dissonance is a symptom, not necessarily the problem. The problem is when we give up the thorny task of engaging with our own misgivings and sacrifice the task of thinking for unthinking loyalty to the ideological playbook. That’s the gravely important issue with no name that we ought to keep a eye on.

Lauren Reiff

Written by

writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between. forever in love with words — laurennreiff@gmail.com

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