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Let's start with a simple test:

Please do this before reading further, as it provides the foundation for the rest of the piece.

We can talk about metaphors-- missing the forest for the trees, or vice versa.  We can talk about why the video above was problematic for so many people.  About half of us, when watching it, miss the big, obvious aspect of it.  

It's also why I missed this at first:

If you don't get it, look at it for a moment.  It will come to you...

Got it yet?

Thought so.

And the fact of the matter is, it's easy to miss big things.  Let's, for example, talk about Cognitive Dissonance.  There are two words I'm going to explain here-- many of you understand them, but some don't, and better safe than sorry.

Cognitive comes from the same root word as "cognition."  It pertains to the process of thought.  I think most of us understand that term.

Dissonance is a musical term.  It's two root words-- "dis" / "dys" meaning badly formed or structured, such as in dysfunctional or dystopia (opposite of "utopia") and "sonnance" which refers to sounds (as in "sonics") come together to imply two notes which don't sound right together.  

Cognitive Dissonance is the same concept applied not to music but to thought.  Cognitive Dissonance is produced when we can't make clear sense out of what we're perceiving or doing.  

The classic cognitive dissonance experiment involves giving people an incredibly boring task and then telling them that as part of the experiment they have to lie to other people and tell them it was very exciting.

The lie, for most people, produces a certain level of dissonance.  However, here's where it gets really interesting: we don't just lie.  We either want to convince ourselves that we didn't lie, or we want to feel justified in having lied.

So what happens later when you're asked to evaluate the incredibly boring task yourself?

If you don't have any reason for having lied to other people about it, you actually convince yourself that it's less boring than it was.  You actually claim that it was kind of fun, which is exactly the lie you've been telling other people.

In other words, you've lied so much to other people that you have to lie to yourself to justify that lie.

IF... on the other hand, you were paid money to lie... you don't adjust your own beliefs about the task.  You are more comfortable having lied because you had a reason to lie.  You were paid to lie so you're okay with it and your own beliefs don't shift.

At this point, you might be thinking "hey, what about that crazy video I watched?  That kind of freaked me out!"

Well, cognitive dissonance needs resolution-- when our brains can't make sense out of things, we find ways to cope.  One way is to lie.  Another way is for the brain to simply ignore that which does not suit it.  This is why Lea Delaria, as she notes, had to keep coming out to her parents.  Delaria describes how she came out to her parents and then came over for dinner a few months later and there was a man she didn't know there.  Turns out they were trying to fix her up with "Steve."  This, by the way, is Lea Delaria (there are some gratuitous lesbian sexual references, but if those bother you, they'll probably go right over your head):

So back to this dissonance.  You can only ignore this dissonance for so long-- there's generally a breaking point if it pushes too much.  Think of it like a rubber band being stretched out-- on one hand there's what you think, and the other side is what you do or see.  When you stretch far enough either one side or the other has to slide towards the one that's harder to move.  If you stretch it too far, it breaks and the illusion you've created for yourself collapses.

What's interesting is that it's often easier for us to, at least to a point, change our attitudes than change our behavior.  I've written a bit here about internalized racism and my own struggles with it-- I don't think what I've discussed is uncommon, except in the sense that I've studied enough about psychology to have some conscious sense about these things that are largely unconscious to most of us.  

But for a lot of people, when they say something racist, and are called on it, their first response is defensive and/or justifying.  That's because the idea "I'm not racist" combined with the behavior "I just used the phrase 'jew 'em down' " doesn't fit.  So instead, we often try to find ways to move them closer.  Since we've already made the statement, that's fixed and immobile, so instead our beliefs budge.  We try one of several approaches:


  1. we insist that the person making the accusation of racism is ignorant, hostile, or "other." (i.e., belittle the idea that there's anything wrong with what we did);

  2. we insist that the incident of racism doesn't mean what it does;

  3. we claim that we were just joking;

  4. we pretend like we never said it in the first place.

Similarly, when you are fans of a show (or public figure) which urges violence against public figures, it's easy to dismiss that talk of violence as just rhetoric, not serious, done in jest, etc.  It's easy to claim that those who object to it are paranoid or delusional.  It's easy to mock an cajole in response.   This all is in the interest of resolving cognitive dissonance.  I'm a good person, so I would never urge violence against other people, but I like this show which urges violence against other people.  So this show must not really urge violence against other people.  When he says "shoot them in the head" he must be talking metaphorically.

Or... alternately... if your grasp on reality is a little more tenuous, you may find yourself thinking "this man is right.  I need to go shoot these people in the head.  I have to do it or they'll shoot me in the head first."  That response, of course, is extremely rare, and may not even exist.  

But when you've been promoting this sort of language, this argument for justifiable homicide, and someone does get shot in the head, once again this places the strain of cognitive dissonance on your psyche.  You have to make choices, and they're not fun choices.  

You can choose to convince yourself that it's all unrelated, that everything happens in a vacuum and that there is no problem with a media figure urging violence against others and that couldn't possibly influence everyone.

You can choose to convince yourself that there might be a connection somewhere but that it's not that big a deal anyway and that everyone gets threats from time to time and it's just part of being in politics so don't worry yourself about it.

You can choose to convince yourself that these threats are the fault of the politicians who are trying to do bad things or that they clearly didn't take the threats seriously because they didn't have security follow them everywhere.

And you can choose to convince yourself that these politicians deserve what they got.  

Put more succinctly:

The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his
  deception, the one who lies with sincerity.

--Andre Gide, "Journal of the Counterfiters"

...or...

I meant to do that.

--Pee Wee Herman

I'm writing this because it's my belief that we need to find better ways to communicate with the people whose cognitive dissonance leaves them open to having it challenged.  I'm talking about the people who think that what happened to Giffords was just horrible, but how is that possibly Glenn Beck's fault?  I'm talking about the people who believe in civil unions, but not same sex marriage.  I'm talking about the people who are against racism but think it's largely a thing of the past. I'm talking about the people who don't want any government takeover of their medicare.  I'm talking about the people who make barely enough money to sustain themselves yet object to more taxes for the rich.  

When we engage people, understanding psychology and understanding the way our minds work is a crucial step to effecting change.  Given what I've just told you about cognitive dissonance, I'm going to give a one question quiz:

You are part of a project designed to influence people to become more energy efficient.  Which of these approaches will be more effective?

Scenario A:  You give homeowners a quiz about their belief in energy efficiency and a list of ways they can improve it.

Scenario B: You give homeowners a quiz about their belief in energy efficiency and, for those who indicate support for efficiency, tell them how their energy usage may differ from their claimed support for it

Originally posted to Where the Waters Run Free on Sun Jan 23, 2011 at 04:13 AM PST.

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