Friday, May 25, 2012

The Transcendent Paradox of Self-Awareness: How Cognitive Dissonance Prevents Most of Us From Understanding Cognitive Dissonance

It’s not a matter of kindness or hard work or even spiritual awareness.  Human stupidity will inevitably catch up with us, and all the more quickly when we believe that we are intelligent, rational and disciplined.  We are drawn to complexity like a blade of grass is drawn to sunlight.  However, we are not equipped to discern reality within complex systems if some other aspect of our lives disposes us to an inconsistent world view.  If we are profiting (financially, socially or ideologically) from doing things in a certain way, most people literally cannot recognize when that social system comes into conflict with legal, moral or ethical standards and values.  There’s an almost impenetrable veil, called cognitive dissonance, that falls over us.  There may be some awareness of the conflict, but it is distorted in ways that allow us to misperceive reality and remain on our current course.   When there is a conflict in our perceptions, we tend to block out all that is not in our existing world view.

In a way, spirituality is the path of self-awareness and many teachers and traditions (especially Buddhist thinkers and original peoples around the world) had human nature nailed.  This is why they did not favor changes that created the illusion of greatness, power and intelligence among humans.  They favored long-term thinking rather than short-term gain.  This is why they sought limitations to the power of rulers and elites, who would always tend to ignore the needs of regular people and concoct systems, businesses and governments to run roughshod over them until the systems would break down.

In the long term, these teachers and traditions understood that after any major change, the next generations would accommodate to the new reality and continue to push technology and social engineering further and further, invariably to one or another breaking point, causing conflict, confusion and the accumulation of wealth among a very small class of people.  Because the lesson of humility must be learned repeatedly by each generation, and our social and technological structures are constantly changing, we never get to the point of understanding our limitations – only our possibilities.  We are doomed, therefore, to progress technologically in ways that distort reality and distract us from our problems, rather than to actually solve them.

Cognitive dissonance is a characteristic of how humans perceive reality.  It holds that we become terribly uncomfortable when the reality we expect is different from the reality that exists, so uncomfortable that we will rationalize them away, ignore them, reinterpret them or otherwise entirely misperceive them.  We may ridicule or even attack those who insist on an alternative view of reality, regardless of whether they are correct or not.  Racists and sexists will defend bigotry if it protects their social order or their economic interests.  They will even defend and nurture a civil or international war, which is virtually always irrational and self-destructive.  We just can’t help ourselves.

And now for the transcendental paradox of human thought:  Most people are unable to comprehend cognitive dissonance because the theory conflicts with their perception of human perfectibility.  The myth of human perfectibility is a powerful force in our lives, and it distorts our perceptions in ways that set us up for self-deception and self-destruction.  The recognition of Cognitive dissonance is an insight that propels a competing human drive towards simplicity and rationality.  However, it is no match for our desire to see the world as orderly and ourselves as rational and perfectible.  

If you have a large tolerance for dissonance, you may see truth in this little article.  If you are made incredibly uncomfortable by this entire topic, you will likely not perceive cognitive dissonance as important at all.   You may be quite annoyed that I have written this, or you may think it is nonsense, a conspiracy, or just plain mean-spirited.  This is determined not by whether you believe me to be intelligent or decent, but by whether you are comfortable with the realizations that humans are not perfectible and that our over-arching social problems are ultimately not solvable until our larger culture becomes comfortably aware of cognitive dissonance and learns to view itself more objectively.  If we wait for battling ideologies to lead us to a rational and effective path, we're likely in for a difficult century.


Sankar Kumar said...

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Earon Davis said...

Obviously, this comment is barely related to the topic, but some thought went into providing a colorable context. Surrogacy in a distant country faces serious logistical and legal challenges, of course.

The complex situation of the birth mother must be considered. Prenatal stress (e.g., ambivalence) is not good for a baby. International adoption might be a more conscious choice, if available, and actually helps mend a challenged life rather than bringing a new life into the world.