The area of neurological science has been responsible for giving us answers to many of the perplexing, if common, questions that arise in our daily lives. One that I have often wondered about is the way simple disagreements can quickly turn into huge arguments, with both sides digging their heels in to win a prize that ultimately really doesn’t matter. I have found myself mounting up argument after argument to prove that I’m right when being right actually doesn’t matter all that much. A recent television commercial featuring a guy sitting in a café arguing on the phone about the date a certain popular song first came out made me chuckle because it could have been me.
Why do we fight so hard to be right? Daniel Goleman, the father of emotional intelligence research, chalks it up to “cognitive dissonance.” This term describes what we feel when something we firmly believe to be true is suddenly confronted with evidence to the contrary. Take someone who has been a lifelong Angels fan. Despite the fact that the Halos have just experienced a drastic losing streak, Mr. Angel Fan will argue all kinds of ways that the Angels are still able, and are just on the verge of greatness. And the more evidence that mounts to the contrary, the more dissonance there is in his mind between his convictions and the evidence.
This dissonance is hard, if not impossible, to live with so he must choose one of two courses of action: either change his convictions or diminish the evidence. We almost always diminish the evidence, and this is the path to greater denial, and in situations much more important that baseball teams, to great ruin.
Cognitive dissonance causes us to become more and more convinced of what we already believe and find greater and greater ways to ignore, diminish, or outright mock any evidence to the contrary. We put ourselves in the position of being unwilling and unable to sincerely accept evidence that will undermine our position.
We become calcified in a position that may be wrong, but worse, have determined nothing could change our minds. We do this, says Goleman, in order to live with ourselves. We want consonance between what we believe and what is true, so we shape all the truth to support our beliefs. And, as we all know, this is dangerous.
I see it all around me, and I see it in me. But where I see it most dangerously is in the political dialogue here in America. It is increasingly evident that Republicans will never give Democrats credit for good ideas, simply because they are already convinced that the Dems are ruining the country and life as we know it.
The same is true for the Dems. They insist the Repubs are ruining the country and life as we know it, and on top of that, are mean-spirited, ignorant and enemies of democracy. Of course, the Repubs will have none of that and insist that the Dems are elitist, socialists, anti-God and … Get the point? Despite the evidence – whatever it may be! – each side shapes it to prove they are right and their opponents are wrong.
In their book “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me),” Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson do a brilliant job demonstrating the destructive nature of cognitive dissonance in vital areas of our society including politics, science, psychology and law enforcement. The evidence is damning. We have found the enemy and it is us, if we become so locked into our beliefs that we lose the ability to honestly assess the evidence.
Even worse, an inability and unwillingness to be honest in assessing opposing arguments means we all too often have to diminish the character of the one bringing it in order to dismiss it to the point where we retain personal consonance. Herein lies the foundation of hatred, and character assassination, or worse. The current terrorizing of the SCOTUS homes is an example.
I greatly fear that the winsome and honoring tenor of our political discourse, so much a hallmark of America’s democratic history, is becoming so eroded that one side barely hears the other. We argue for the cameras rather than shape arguments to help solve problems. It appears that most of our political speech is intended either to galvanize our supporters or embarrass and demean our opponents. And this is filtering down from Washington into the very fabric of our neighborhoods.
Just monitor some of the punditry in the news and on the various social media platforms and you’ll have to agree. Cognitive dissonance is creating a monster variant of intolerance that has mutated from ridicule to outright hatred and the desire to see one’s opponents destroyed. The danger is not only that we are becoming more and more intransigent and committed to what we already believe, but also that we are forfeiting the chance to get better, solve some of the problems, and become what we all really want and that is to be better! Better for ourselves, better for our children, and better than the current edition of the American Experiment which seems — shockingly! — to be coming apart at the seams.
Apparently, we’re stubbornly right that we’re right, and that’s just wrong.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.