Cognitive Dissonance

November 3, 2015

Cognitive Dissonance is the uncomfortable and stressful mental state experienced when our beliefs contradict the hard facts of objective reality. We all have beliefs. Beliefs about politics, religion, relationships, values, who we are, where we come from, the nature of reality, and the meaning of life. Being incredibly passionate about those beliefs however is no guarantee that they are not completely wrong. It’s that “completely wrong” experience that I’d like to talk about.

According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, we strive for internal consistency in our belief system, and when we experience inconsistency or dissonance, we tend to become mentally uncomfortable. This mental discomfort serves a purpose – to motivate us to reduce the dissonance and avoid situations or information that is likely to increase it.

There are generally two ways we can reduce or eliminate our cognitive dissonance. We can either 1) modify or change our beliefs to become consistent with the facts, or 2) we can try to force or change the facts of objective reality to agree with our beliefs.

Of these two options, when experiencing cognitive dissonance, I’m sure most of us would like to think we would choose the first. Recognizing that our beliefs disagree with the facts of objective reality can be an unpleasant situation, but with psychological maturity comes a certain willingness to embrace the hard truths of the world despite it going against our personal beliefs and values. Most mentally and emotionally mature individuals will, albeit reluctantly, adjust their beliefs to come into harmony with the given facts of a situation.    

Surprisingly though, the second choice of ignoring or “changing” the facts over those of our personal beliefs seems to be gaining an increasing amount of traction in our modern world. Nowhere has this become more noticeable than in the political and religious arenas. Understandably, these two realms carry an enormous amount of psychological and sociological baggage and relate directly to a person’s sense of good and bad, right and wrong, the value and meaning of life, freedom, liberty, God, and the pursuit of happiness.

But to paraphrase a quote by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the universe is under no obligation to conform to your beliefs about it. In other words, if your beliefs are totally wrong, the rest of the world is not required to conform to those erroneous beliefs. The world does not exist to agree with your worldview. Quite to the contrary, the world, universe, laws of nature, facts of the matter, or however you want to conceptualize the rigid rod of reality, simply is. The onus for change is upon us, not the world at large when we are in a state of cognitive dissonance.

Despite this rather common sense understanding, as a nation, we are largely awash in a flat out refusal to accept the facts that may run counter to our beliefs. Scientific literacy is at an all-time low, fact checking goes completely ignored, and large groups of people stubbornly cling to ideologies and belief systems that have neither evidence nor reason to support them. Issues such as the denial of climate change or evolutionary theory; President Obama’s religious affiliation; or the literal and historical accuracy of the Bible are all topics of contention that are apparently so self-evident to their believers that they require no proof whatsoever to be considered accurate. In the minds of such people facts and evidence literally do not matter.  

If you don’t find this shocking, you should. Of all our mental attributes, critical thinking is one of the most powerful tools we have for rooting out the causes of our own ignorance. But when we bypass or turn off our critical thinking simply because the answers it gives us are uncomfortable, we’re ignoring the signals our cognitive dissonance is sending us and leading ourselves down the path of self-delusion.

Here’s an example of this mindset that comes from the martial arts. For decades, or even centuries, students of the martial arts were trained by their instructor in a given style and were taught that their art was the most effective means of self-defense and realistic combative skill. As is often the case in the martial arts, newer students fall into the groupthink of the class and accept what they are taught without question. Lessons were learned, practiced, and handed down from teacher to student, perpetuating the belief in the style’s effectiveness. However, with no actual testing of the art’s functionality in true combat, the students are left believing in their art’s ability on faith alone.

Such was the case for countless martial artists throughout the decades until one fateful night in 1993 at the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. During that event martial artists from multiple styles pitted their arts and skills against each other in a litmus test of effectiveness in actual combat. There were few if any rules in that early event. No weight classes, no time limits, no illegal strikes. It was as close to the brutal reality of a street fight as one could get without risking serious injury or death. What happened? Royce Gracie, a small, relatively unknown Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt dominated and forced the submission of each of his opponents. Not only that, he did the same in 3 subsequent UFC events, answering once and for all the question of what does and doesn’t work in actual combat. Where were the deadly one strike, one kill techniques? The lethal pressure point attacks, the dirty fighting techniques, the “secret methods” that were too dangerous for all but the most skilled masters? Interestingly, those techniques and the promises of their effectiveness against an actual resisting opponent suddenly turned into nothing more than armchair pontification.

UFCs 1-4 sent the martial arts community into a tailspin of cognitive dissonance. Long held beliefs about the supposed “deadly effectiveness” of martial arts styles were in jeopardy. What were you to do as a marital artist caught up in this dissonance? Well, you could either 1) recognize what happened, accept it, and choose to update your belief system to integrate the new information; in this case the absolute necessity in training in the grappling arts and the fundamental understanding that a very high percentage of actual fights end up on the ground. Or 2) you could stubbornly resist these very obvious, demonstrable facts and carry on as if nothing had happened, continuing to believe in the deadly power of your techniques and martial philosophy so as to not have to face the uncomfortable fact that your training may be incomplete.

I’ve had an experience that loosely parallels what I’ve described above – I recently started studying Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (the same art Royce used to dominate in the UFCs). You should know that I’ve been studying or training in the martial arts since I was 18. I’ve trained in several arts, earned a black belt in one, an instructor’s certification in another, and felt that overall, I had a good understanding and a significant level of skill when it came to the martial arts. However, from my first time rolling (free sparring with a resisting opponent), I became rapidly re-acquainted with cognitive dissonance. Although I had some ground fighting training in the past, this was a huge game-changer. It’s one thing to say, “If I run up against a guy who wants to hurt me, I’ll do ‘such and such’”, but it’s something entirely different to have that guy (who outweighs you by an easy 75 pounds) posted with a knee on your belly making you seriously contemplate whether to crap or go blind. Very, very little of my previous training prepared me for this – the techniques, the conditioning, the emotional content. And this is what sets this art apart – the brutal closeness to actual combat it simulates. As I’ve come to realize, without a training method in which your opponent is actually trying his hardest to submit you as you are trying to submit him, you are to a certain extent, engaging in a fantasy.  

This cognitive dissonance continues to rear its head whenever I start thinking I have an idea of what I’m doing. It usually takes the form of a higher belt student crushing me during a three minute roll, but in the end it’s teaching me a valuable lesson: the world doesn’t care what you think. What works is what works, I can either accept it and integrate this knowledge into my slow climb to self-mastery, or I can quit and go back to my old comfortable delusions. Believe me, I’ve thought about quitting and justifying it by telling myself that “this isn’t what I was looking for”, but that would just be a disguise for me sticking my head in the sand and pretending I was something I wasn’t.

I’d like to think that this post sums up why I’m so keen on the teachings of Bruce Lee and his art of Jeet Kune Do*. Bruce was all about confronting his own illusions and inspiring others to do the same. He knew that cognitive dissonance, while a crappy feeling, is a means to explore, expose, and root out the causes of our own ignorance. His art and philosophy was a very practical one. It says, do what works, ignore what doesn’t, and find your own way. He knew the facts don’t lie and we have to stand ever vigilant against the self-deception we indulge in order to avoid having to change our beliefs.

I’ll button up this post with two quotes that seem appropriate:

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

– John Adams

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

* Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a component of the Jeet Kune Do I practice and it provides a set of attributes vital to the overall JKD matrix.

  

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