In classic psychology, we attempt to remove the contradiction (or dissonance) in one of three ways:
- We can change our actions or our beliefs so as to conform with the new information,
- We can seek new information that conforms to our present beliefs and so eliminates the contradictory information.
- We can lessen the importance of the contradiction, so that it does not bother us.
From my experience, the first of these is the one we are least likely to do. Why? Because of belief systems. We all live within a set of beliefs that interconnect and enhance one another to build a whole system of beliefs. Most of us, as we grow up, come to adopt the prevailing belief systems of our parents, our schooling, our friends, our work colleagues, our church, our political affiliation, or whatever. At a macro level, we tend to adopt the belief system of our culture.
Our cultural belief system includes the outwardly showing phenomena of sports, architecture, music, literature, and the other things we associate with culture. Our cultural belief system, however, also includes the sometimes hidden aspects of things such as: our attitude to elders, children, strangers; our notions of time and space; whether we are competitive or cooperative; what we think of death and dying; manners and courtesy; how we define beauty or ugliness.
Our belief systems are extremely powerful, to a large extent because we are often unaware of them. It has been suggested that asking a person to describe their culture is rather like asking a fish to describe water. Our belief systems surround us, contain us, and direct us, mostly without us noticing.
So it is that when we are confronted with information that contradicts our beliefs, we are extremely unlikely to change our actions or beliefs because of that new information. Furthermore, our belief systems are how we come to see ourselves, how we define ourselves, and hence, become a means by which we portray ourselves in the world. In short, our belief systems help define our sense of self. And, changing who we are and our sense of self is something we are very reluctant to want to do.
So, what do we do? We resort to one or both of the other two mechanisms. Justify or downplay.
Justification is easy. We can all find information or research which seems to confirm the beliefs or values we already hold, even when the weight of contradictory information would suggest otherwise. Again, psychology has a term for this as well – confirmation bias. This bias is especially strong when we are faced with emotionally charged situations or issues, or when the contradictory information is at odds with deeply held beliefs.
It is little wonder then that in social justice work, or other similar work, we can often see polarisation occurring.
Now, here’s the crunch. What if we - those of us seeking social justice, or a more sustainable world – are experiencing cognitive dissonance and are justifying our own beliefs and values through a process of confirmation bias? Do we ever stop to consider that? Or do we simply believe we are right, we are correct in our ideas and beliefs?
If the world is to become more compassionate, more respectful, more peaceful, then all of us need to hold our beliefs and belief systems lightly. This is at odds with much of the western approach to social change, wherein the social change activist is exhorted to “hold tight to your values or dreams.”
Holding lightly, however, means not being attached to our belief systems in such away that we cannot relate with other people, other cultures, or other belief systems. This does not imply rejecting our belief systems – we need these in order to navigate healthily in the world. Its about recognising that all of us can be subject to cognitive dissonance, and that all of us can find ways to confirm our own beliefs. All we need, as some would say is to – lighten up.