Why It Is Time to Retire Cognitive Dissonance Accusations

In recent years the concept of cognitive dissonance has been weaponized by those who choose to socially interact with bad faith and a sense of self-righteous superiority.

Those who would wield the complex psychological theory of Cognitive Dissonance like a rhetorical weapon against others seem to be acutely unaware that there are competing models with roughly equal evidence in their favor. Cognitive Dissonance (CogDiss) is not settled science, and psychological concepts and theories bear little in common with physical science’s ability to estimate accurate predictive models, which are often unfortunately mislabeled ‘laws’, albeit science is a continual process with no final answers. In short, not only has CogDiss never been proven conclusively, and since it is based on a particularly weak empiricism where even strong empiricism is not absolute, it is almost impossible that it ever could be.

Nonetheless those prone to intellectual bullying predicated on absolutist assertions continue to use the theory to browbeat others into submission and shame. And let us be honest here, nobody is accusing others of CogDiss in a helpful manner. Even if you attempted to point it out without ill will, it should be obvious that the recipient of such an accusation is likely to feel insulted in some way. To insult someone with a questionable accusation based on a limited set of information is to build your case on untenable ethical and intellectual foundations, and it appears that many people using CogDiss as a rhetorical weapon are poorly educated as to the veracity and/or complexity of that model of behavior.

There are several other competing theories, but for the sake of viewing the kinds of interactions in which I often see this behavior at play, I would like to contrast it with Self-Perception Theory. At the same time I would like to state right up front that both theories are far more complex than I will be treating them here in this rough sketch, and one should supplement this writing with their own research and make their own conclusions. My goal is not to present a broad and highly accurate picture, but to provide a framework for understanding how so many of our interactions (especially online) have grown so toxic in recent years.

ChangingMinds.org describes Self-Perception Theory (SPT) thusly:

“People decide on their own attitudes and feelings from watching themselves behave in various situations. This is particularly true when internal cues are so weak or confusing they effectively put the person in the same position as an external observer.”

If I were to describe it in terms that make sense in light of the examples to follow, it might go something like this:

People tend to act out narratives of self which they have created from the reactions, by their self and others, to their prior behavior.

For instance, a coworker sitting across from you appears angry, and is seemingly wearing a scowl. You then decide to ask them what they are angry about. Before your question the person was in a sort of a Schrodinger’s Box state of emotions. They were neither angry nor pleased, just daydreaming while their expressions unknowingly played out a full palette of moods. Yet in the moments after you suggest that they are angry, albeit by a mere question, it becomes seemingly more obvious that they are. By asking them to assess their state while they were in a no-state, and then suggesting their possible state, they then began acting on that suggested state’s behavior script.

In some ways SPT is similar to quantum theory, in which the behaviors of the observed and observer appear inexplicably entwined; where CogDiss appears more literal-minded, like the cause and effect limitations of classical physics. This also seems important to consider, since both theories describe subjective states, and so the hard objectivity of CogDiss becomes less appropriate as an explanatory method. From here on you might choose to think of SPT as Schrodinger’s Mood. In some circumstances, or to some degree,  an individual remains in all possible subjective/emotional states until measured.

It can also be viewed as a form of reverse-engineering a personality trait, behavior, and/or description of them after-the-fact, as well as the justifications which inevitably follow either in conversation or in our private thoughts.

Now lets look at a hypothetical conversation and contrast the two theories.

Dana: Look, I get what you are saying, but statistics clearly show that most accidents involving alcohol and farm equipment happen to males over the age of 40. Therefore there is no reason to create a law which specifically holds minors to a lower BAC standard for breaking existing laws for operating farm equipment while intoxicated.

Sheila: So what, you think it is okay for teenagers to get drunk and drive tractors around?

Dana: No, I just think your proposal is ill-advised and ignores some basic facts regarding the core issues.

Sheila: What is so ill-advised about wanting to prevent a tragedy?

Dana: Nothing, but the facts are clearly causing you so much cognitive dissonance that you become increasingly unreasonable when presented with them.

Sheila: *becomes increasingly unreasonable* Yeah, well you’re an asshole.

Dana: *assholishness increases* Yeah, well you’re just butthurt.

Total communication breakdown achieved.

CogDiss would suggest that Sheila’s increasing hostility was totally based on her inability to resolve her opinions with the facts or arguments she was presented; where SPT states that only after Dana made an estimate of her behavior, labeled it and shared it, did Sheila fully adopt the script of the emotionally overwrought.

If Dana assumes this outcome was the product of the relationship between Sheila and the facts/arguments, as she suggested with the accusation of cognitive dissonance, then she absolves herself from any personal responsibility for that outcome. While it may seem reasonable to suggest that we are not personally responsible for other people’s emotional states, that would require us to ignore a lot of evidence from this and many other types of interactions that taking it badly is a completely predictable outcome, a fact that is foolish to ignore. And in the end, knowing we have the power to influence these outcomes suggests to us greater tools than when we deny our ability and role.

Regardless of which theory is right, by assuming that SPT is the appropriate model to act from, Dana would have more power to control outcomes with Sheila if she suggested positive states and attributes, rather than accusatory and humiliating ones. By planting productive cues, rather than dismissing Sheila with condescending accusations, Dana can lead her to new ideas in ways that allow her to believe the ideas were her own, or that she helped to arrive at and and/or construct without coercion or consequence.

Dana might still chose to act from the CogDiss script if her goal is to get a rise out of Sheila by being an ideological bully and emotional brow-beater.

Clearly those who choose to have productive interactions and be an effective advocate of their ideas would do best to begin by assuming the SPT model over CogDiss. The latter seems hard wired for confrontational stalemates, while the former suggests paths towards progress.

However I do not think that we must discard CogDiss completely. It is clear that when people are presented with challenging views that are not easy to refute on the spot, they become flustered and begin to behave more erratically. It would be absurd to deny that, as we have all experienced it ourselves and seen it in others on numerous occasions. In customer service jobs I have learned that, as a rule of thumb, the more wrong a customer is about something, the more atrocious and toxic their behavior becomes. There is no red flag for the unreasonable like a shameless display of digging in deeper.

So then if we look at the interaction above through the lens of both theories, we can see how in concert with one another they might likely lead to escalation of tensions and the breakdown of productive interactions. Trying to fluster someone by presenting a case in a way that makes them uncomfortable will not win them over. And if you have a bias that people who react poorly to your arguments do so out of CogDiss, then you should be skeptical of any confirmation that this occurred, as now your own bias confirmation is playing a factor and could prompt you to project your frustrations onto others in ways that will almost certainly end as a self-fulfilled prophecy of hard feelings and ineffective advocacy.

If you wish to make progress, then you should find the way of presenting your ideas which uniquely appeals to each person as an individual. Honor those guided by emotions by finding ways to make your case through emotional rationalizations. If you are unable to do so, do not project your failure onto others, but rise up to the challenge. Any idea worth getting across is worth getting across with patience, understanding and kindness. If your idea has no time for that, it probably isn’t anywhere near as good as you think it is. In the end we are all just trying to feel good about ourselves and the world we live in.

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