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Dealing with the dissonance

A radio news commentary heard this week centered on the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance and its role in the current American presidential political scene.

It is a concept applicable to local politics and problems, as well.

Cognitive dissonance, in brief, is a condition in which information causes discomfort or pain when it does not cohere with strongly held beliefs. We humans normally do not easily accommodate conflicting beliefs and the discomfort that results. When such conflict occurs, something must be done to alleviate the unease and, for most of us, the smoothest course leads to rejection of the conflicting belief or information. Often, beyond rejection of the conflicting belief, we seek additional and frequently erroneous information to support our comfortable state.

We don’t like pain and discomfort, do we? At least, not most of us.

Cognitive dissonance, therefore, is a significant motive factor in many value judgments; it plays a role in the elementary decisions we make (personal relationships and purchasing decisions, for example) and in politics and community-based decision making processes.

That many comfortable ideas have ideological roots should come as no surprise. A person with left-leaning ideology will often find it more comfortable to reject accurate information coming from the right than to adjust his or her notions. Similarly, a right-leaning ideologue will opt for comfort, and inaccuracy, rather than accommodate valid information coming from a left-leaning source.

So we have it that, in the current presidential run-up, ideologues on both sides of the fence spout lines that, eight years ago, were touted by their opposite numbers: Obama is cast in the same mold as Bush was eight years ago, Romney and John Kerry seem oddly similar in many respects when one listens to their critics.

Strongly held beliefs are also formed as a result of participation in a process that develops projects. An investment of time, energy and ideas in a project often leads to a “blinders-on” approach, and potential cognitive dissonance.

Once we are convinced a project and supporting ideas are correct, most of us remain on track, finding it difficult to accept the discomfort that comes with contrary fact and opinion.

Apply this notion to certain local issues — say the Wal-Mart controversy and the proposed Reservoir Hill developments. In both instances we find evidence of cognitive dissonance in certain quarters, with people entrenched and unwilling to accept information and ideas that run counter to their beliefs.

Thankfully, we also find examples of those who can make changes. Such is the case with Norm Vance, who has a letter in this week’s SUN. Norm understands the process wherein beliefs are challenged and you have the choice to modify your stance or to feel pain and discard reality in favor of comfort. He understands the meaning of an investment in a project or idea and how, sometimes, that investment clouds the picture. When he asks those promoting the full amenity package for Reservoir Hill to “cut bait,” he understands how difficult change can be — but he knows it can be done. He also understands that, to assault or attempt to belittle those who hold tight to a belief is not the way to encourage change. When one’s self esteem is bound to a belief, an ad hominem attack does not provide resolution. The answer is, as Norm shows, to recognize the effort and intensity of proponents and to persist in the attempt to introduce facts that might, just might, lead them to alter their beliefs.

Facts count, whether in national affairs or local controversy. Change in beliefs comes hard, and only facts and civility can constructively displace dissonance.

Karl Isberg

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