I took advantage of this holiday week to catch up on a little beach reading.  I just picked up Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.  Although I’m having a little bit of trouble getting into the book, there is a very good chapter at the beginning on cognitive dissonance that caught my attention.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when two conflicting notions clash inside your head.  For instance, when the belief that “men are stronger than women” is confronted with evidence that a woman has just beaten a man in a competition of strength – or when the deeply held belief that “I am a good driver” clashes with the fact that you’ve just crashed your car into a tree.

According to Tavris and Aronson, humans have an interesting way of dealing with cognitive dissonance – essentially we bend the truth to fit our preferred worldview. Said a different way, we lie to ourselves.

When we see evidence of something that goes against our deeply held beliefs, we quickly discount the observed evidence in favor of maintaining our existing beliefs.  If we believed men to be stronger than women and observed a woman winning a competition of strength, we would immediately think of all the reasons why the observed evidence was not indicative of a global trend.  If we were to crash our car into a tree, we would think of all the reasons why it was not our fault and we would maintain the view that we are good drivers.

To an unbiased onlooker this kind of reality distortion seems childish and ridiculous.  However, the funny thing is that we all do it unconsciously and uncontrollably.

Evolution has programmed us such that we all see ourselves as inherently good and on the side of right, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  The power of cognitive dissonance is so strong, that it can cause us to forget things we have done (things that didn’t fit our positive view of ourselves).  Or, even more remarkably, it can cause us to vividly remember doing things that we did not do.

To me this is an interesting lesson to think about when navigating life.  We’ve all had challenging relationships with other people, but no matter who you’re dealing with – whether it’s a bad boss at work, a needy friend, or someone who just cut you off in traffic – everyone is hard wired to see themselves as inherently good and justified for their actions.

Inside every one of us – no matter what we’ve done – we all picture ourselves as the hero of the story, even if our actions are villainous.

There are no “Bad Guys”
  • You may also like the (not-so) Fundamental Attribution Error, which is sort-of more what you’re talking about than cognitive dissonance.

    As a small point, a good use of cognitive dissonance in customer service/etc is understanding that some consumers will “displace” blame. So, let’s say that (i) you believe you’re a good driver, and (ii) you crash into a tree. People – as you note – will modify their recollection of the facts to fit the belief that they hold more dearly, e.g. that they’re a good driver.

    They might, for instance, blame the car manufacturer; whoever last serviced it; the conditions; etc.

    Dealing with people who feel like they’ve been legitimately wronged – when it’s just cognitive dissonance – is a difficult thing to do.

    P.S. If you’re interested in a lot more of this kind of stuff, try getting through the truly excellent book The Psychology of Stereotyping:

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Psychology-Stereotyping-Distinguished-Contributions/dp/1593851936/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1341861880&sr=8-1&keywords=psychology+of+stereotyping

    It’s sufficiently dense and information packed that I read it at 25% of my normal speed. It’s also very comprehensive – the last 180 pages are the bibliography (!!!!!).

  • Andrew Eifler

    Michael – thanks for the note!

    I’ll check out the Psychology book – although since 25% of your normal speed is probably my top speed, i’m not sure how well i’ll be able to get through it :)

    Also – I just read up on Fundamental Attribution Error on wikipedia – definitely fills in some gaps here.

  • I was going to give chapter recommendations, and it turns out the publisher offers the first chapter as a free download:

    http://www.guilford.com/excerpts/schneider.pdf

    I like some of the other chapters better, but it gives an impression of the writing style and provides a good overview of the book content.