Cognitive Dissonance

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Cognitive Dissonance

Roots of The Crisis of The American Conscience

Op-Ed By Jennifer Stagner

Jennifer Stagner is a Social Studies and English teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, and mother of four rambunctious boys. Her life-long passion is promoting positive systemic change at all levels of society.

In the discipline of psychology, cognitive dissonance is defined as “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.”

Not everyone has a conscious awareness of this inconsistency.

It is incredibly hard to filter through the overload of information that exists in our modern society at a purely practical level. And so, while cognitive dissonance is theorized to lead to behavioral changes, these can only take root when a person first experiences that an inconsistency exists, and then puts in the work to resolve this uncertainty.

The death of George Floyd has affected large swaths of the population who do not normally face the disconnect between their beliefs about the Black experience in America, and the actual experiences. But watching that video touched a primal nerve, because it circumvented the internal dialog of everyone who watched it, and tapped into our innermost humanity, our rawest and most deeply held belief systems: we all knew it was wrong. It was undeniable and incontrovertible.

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When we experience trauma, which so many people inevitably did as the result of watching a Black man die under the knee of a White police officer, we come to the next step in our journey: Why? Why would someone do that? Why would all of the people watching it allow it? Why didn’t he fight back and try to escape?

Why did George Floyd have to die?

This is where the cognitive dissonance inserts itself. As we explore the evidence, we cannot help but recognize that there was something besides “that man tried to pass a counterfeit bill” going on here. In no possible instance could we construct a narrative which made this okay. Suddenly, people who generally give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt could not do that; people who say they hate racism could no longer ignore the fact that they couldn’t help that man – nor had they ever, in fact, tried to help any person of color – and people who routinely say, “I would never do something like that” were forced to confront the fact they did not know if they were not racists.

Human beings have an innate desire to avoid the discomfort associated with cognitive dissonance.

Attempts to escape from the discomfort elicit an array of responses, depending upon the prior experiences and intellectual schema of each individual. In this article, entitled “Cognitive Dissonance: What to Know,” three broad categories of reaction are outlined:

  1. rejecting or avoiding conflicting information,
  2. persuading and justifying, or
  3. reconciling the differences.

The backlash we are witnessing in the peaceful protests, riotous looting and massive popular uprising is the result of taking action to resolve these disparities between belief and experience.

The sharp contrast in reactions of Americans who identify with liberal versus conservative ideologies is only broadening the divide in our already fractured discourse. In liberal circles, rejecting and persuading manifest as “See, I’m not a racist; I’m protesting in the streets and arguing with racists on Facebook.” In conservative circles, there is more of an outright rejection of evidence: “It is the fault of the police unions;” or, “That cop is not representative of all policemen.” Or, my favorite: “If you don’t do anything criminal, the police won’t bother you.” While these are not inherently irreconcilable differences, the manner in which we continue to frame the narrative – as a conflict instead of a problem to be resolved together – is preventing us from even beginning to broach the issues in a conciliatory manner. We are getting nowhere.

As we recognize the lack of meaningful changes to our institutions, then perhaps it becomes apparent why rioting has become the only option for some. It could be argued that the violent attempts to tople economic institutions are not the result of cognitive dissonance at all, but rather a sense of relief at the acknowledgement of the long-held certainty in African-American and intellectual circles that injustice was woven into the fabric of American existence.

The rage could also be seen as a manifestation of the timeless human emotion of grief. Greek Tragedies, Modern Psychology, classic American Westerns, and history itself have imprinted the formula into the depths of the human psyche: Denial, Anger, Depression, Acceptance.  

Although liberals accuse conservatives of avoiding information that contradicts their own narrative, it is hardly the sole purview of one half of the ideological divide: the street goes both ways. If we live in a “conservative” bubble that tells us, for example, that “racism doesn’t exist,” then it is incredibly difficult to convince us to believe otherwise – unless we are not only exposed to, but also forced to internalize, evidence to the contrary. Watching eight minutes and forty-eight seconds of murder will do that.

Conversely, if we live in a liberal bubble, then we maintain the illusion that we can know exactly why people act as they do. Consequently, we ignore evidence that contradicts our certainties, or which suggests motivations are more complicated than we are allowing for. Hence, when a liberal is confronted with evidence that “the White cop didn’t kill that Black man solely because he was Black,” then it is easy to ignore that evidence because it doesn’t fit into the narrative.

It is safe to say that the first two methods of reconciliation, avoidant rejection and persuasive justification, are the staples of Facebook and Twitter culture. The massive amounts of internet traffic and streams of posting personal beliefs on the interwebs are testimony to that in and of themselves. While some of this outpouring of verbal vitriol is cathartic, there is a certain manic edge to the endless debates, which tend to fall along political party fault lines.

Psychologically speaking, it isn’t particularly healthy – not to deny the validity of the emotion behind any of these approaches, but their common failing is that they lack solutions.

The third, reconciling differences, is most effective, but also the most difficult to attain. “Reconciling the differences between conflicting beliefs, or between actions and beliefs, is a form of personal growth.” It requires a deep-dive into self that most of us are ill-equipped to embark upon.

It requires that we change ourselves in response to an external conflict, an age-old conflict that isn’t OUR fault. It is much easier to blame systems that we do not hold dear, and to tear down someone else’s cognitive constructs than it is to modify our own. Let’s face it: Americans are bi-partisan at heart. There are good guys and bad guys in every story, and for every winner, there must be a loser. It is the blood that runs in our veins.

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If it were just a case of cognitive dissonance about police brutality and race relations in America, we probably wouldn’t be witnessing the level of social unrest that continues to roil the populace. The larger problem is that cognitive dissonance underlies the complete breakdown of the political party system in America; it encompasses the scope of the public health problem that we labor under with the national COVID-19 pandemic, and it is one hundred percent a cumulative and irresistible tide that is drowning a society awash with unresolvable conflict.

Unresolved conflict ALWAYS displays itself in the actions we choose. To deny this fact is to deny the obvious. While Chinese media reports that America is failing may be extreme, when we witness the protests, destruction and violence in our own media, we can’t help but compare them to the repression of uprisings we have witnessed in China. Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong were shocking for the use of the military to quash dissent; but now we are being forced to ask ourselves the hard questions, such as: Are we really doing any better than them? 

We cannot afford to continue to avoid responsibility for this conflict by blaming the opposing ideology.

The costs of this willful ignorance are counted in human lives. Going back to the original question in everyone’s minds – Why did George Floyd have to die? – the answer emerges: Cognitive Dissonance. When we ignore the stark realities in order to sustain a fictional narrative that we are right, then people die. George died. Countless Americans have died in fruitless attempts to stand up for their personhood. Avoidance leads to a war in the mind, and a war in the mind leads to a war in the streets. The police brutality we have witnessed in recent weeks, unjust though it may be, isn’t one sided: protests have turned violent. This serves as a visceral reminder that conflict has consequences.

Maybe you are a social justice warrior. Maybe you are concerned about the economic impact of the troubles we have borne. Perhaps you are a parent, or a teacher, concerned for the future we are creating for the next generation. Regardless of your reasons, or from what angle you approach the problem, or how your own personal why differs from your neighbor’s, we cannot beat the opposition into submission or accepting one viewpoint while ignoring the other.

If we want to get to the root of this cancer and begin to work together to end hateful rhetoric and oppression in ALL forms, then as a society, we must get familiar with Cognitive Dissonance.

Works Cited:

https://www.lexico.com/definition/cognitive_dissonance

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326738#overview

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/supersurvivors/201707/why-the-five-stages-grief-are-wrong

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