Singing usually reserved for karaoke nights at the local club went public when American Idol aired six years ago on TV. You’ve seen the auditions, and I’m sure you’ve thought: “How can people who sing so horrendously defend so vigourously their obviously glass shattering performance? Don’t they know that they can’t sing?”
If anything, there are scores of people on TV shows hinting at the possibility that fooling ourselves is more commonplace than we would like to believe.
As it turns out, there is a very powerful psychological theory introduced by Leon Festinger that explains an aspect of human behaviour we would do well to understand. It is called cognitive dissonance. What the theory holds is that if a person holds two ideas, attitudes, opinions or beliefs that are inconsistent, they will attempt to reduce that dissonance in such a way as to match their self-image often at the expense of reality.
For instance, let’s say I were to impulsively buy an iPhone. I might return home and realize that it’s expensive, unnecessary, and boy was I stupid to lock myself in for three years. But I also hold this belief that I am a smart, financially wise, waste-not kind of person. These two sets of thoughts create an uncomfortable dissonance in me. To get out of dissonance, I could return the iPhone and admit my foolishness, OR I might maintain my image and rationalize that I need it for my business, that it saves space, and that I was actually smart to purchase it.
The drawback to rationalizing actions is the price paid in objectivity. I might not be able to afford it in the long-run or perhaps the iPhone provides no significant productivity gains. I am in effect lying to myself to make myself feel better.
The concept of cognitive dissonance has very practical applications when it comes to understanding relationships where emotions can conspire with misunderstanding to create further misunderstanding. Consider this cartoonish diagram of a breakup scenario.
Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (Mistakes were Made) describe this as sliding down a pyramid where each person starts with a shared perspective, but after a series of rationalizations find themselves sharing nothing in common at the bottom of the pyramid. The rationalizations are so powerful that they affect how people interpret their memories. The diagram illustrates a common phenomenon where couples in love will see their partner as doing no wrong while couples out of love will see their partner as doing nothing right.
In 2003, rationalizations occurred on a collective level in the United States. Even after weapons of mass destruction were clearly not found in Iraq, many Americans actually believed the opposite, that WMDs had been found. Those that supported the war likely did not want to believe that their president or country had attacked another country based on a false pretense. Rather than dealing with this uncomfortable dissonance, it was an easy leap to accept the administration’s message that the war was for liberty and democracy in Iraq… a message that was well publicized only after the WMDs were not found.
Given the strength of cognitive dissonance and the pliability of memories, what then thus this mean for us? How then do we act “rationally” on anything? Luckily we have found a number of ways to manage the limitations of the human brain and our powers of observation. Here are a few starting points.
1. Admit that you are fallible
The first step is to admit that our memories are not perfect and that our interpretation of events are biased particularly when emotions run high. It is easy to believe what we believe is the “truth” because we believe it! This circular, self-reinforcing argument may help us feel more “grounded” in the moment. Yet as we all know, life has a tendency to burst our bubble over and over again whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.
To admit when we have made a mistake runs counter to our society’s insistence that mistakes are a sign of personal failure. However, to admit a mistake is to take responsibility for our actions and learn from them.
The next time you feel cognitive dissonance, rather than immediately defending your actions or justifying it, stay with the discomfort and take a hard look.
2. Do good rather than feel good
At the source of our reluctance to admit fallibility is our desire to see ourselves as smart, good people. Certainly we should preserve a sense of self that is positive and productive. However, the criteria of feeling good is a poor standard to live by. From going to the gym to speaking honestly, there are plenty of times when we must live up to higher standards.
The hard truth is recognizing that we are conflicted beings. I am both caring about the environment and destructive of it. I am a good listener some days and a poor one on others. The ability to live with the dissonance between who we think we should be and who we are helps us to strive to be better rather than believe we have arrived.
3. Work on your guidance system
Admitting that we are fallible does not now mean that nothing is knowable. It just means that we must be more diligent in our thinking.
Consider how crime scene investigators reconstruct past events by testing theories against eye-witness testimony and forensics evidence. Or consider how scientists manage to understand the nature of disease. Much as a GPS uses multiple satellites to triangulate a position, we need our own guidance system to continuously triangulate our thoughts and actions.
One part of the guidance system can be the truth-tellers in our lives. Because of our own tendency to fool ourselves, it helps to have other people challenge our perspectives. Peer review in professional journals has proven to be a powerful means of triangulation because ideas or thought are subject to different perspectives possibly not considered by the contributor. In a way, good friends are like peer reviewers that can reflect back what we are doing well and what we are doing poorly.
Another aspect of the guidance system is our ability to be investigators in our own thinking. How are we at collecting evidence? At testing theories? At interviewing witnesses? For example, while facilitating I might observe someone to have their arms crossed and gaze averted and immediately jump to the conclusion that the participant is anger or avoiding something. Rather than testing my theory, I may leap to false accusations which in turn makes misinterpretation self-fulflling.
Take the time to ask yourself: How do I seek out my blindspots? How often do I look for evidence that challenges your worldview? Not an easy task, but worthwile nevertheless.
Facing our own ignorance, learning from our mistakes and continuously do better is of utmost importance for us as individuals and as a collective. Remember that we are often the deluded Idol. We just don’t always have the good fortune of having someone point it out to us.
Your Turn to Make Comments
When have you rationalized actions?
How have you learned to face your mistakes?
What helps you to prevent self-justifying thinking?
Why do we rationalize things?
Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.