Self-Deception and Cognitive Dissonance

Can you hold two completely opposing or conflicting thoughts in mind at the same time and still be in peace. Not a chance. Human mind needs a resolution of conflicting points of view to maintain equilibrium. Otherwise it will be under tension. This is true of important existential issues as well as trivial day-to-day issues. To take a trivial issue first, consider our current political discourse. People who supported PM Modi after he took over as PM go all out to defend him even on an issue like demonetization which is hardly defensible. When you already have a mental picture of Modi as a pragmatic PM, you cannot entertain another conflicting idea of the same man taking politically motivated decisions. How does the mind resolve this conflict? It will ignore all facts of the case and defend someone who cannot be defended. Likewise, people who supported AAP in the beginning have every reason to feel disgruntled later based on his performance. However, they resolve the conflict in their minds by inventing new meanings to his actions. Basic point here is that the human mind can function in peace only when opposing points of view are resolved. If this happens without a proper inquiry this is self-deception?

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state where two conflicting thoughts trouble the mind. This is often resolved by self-deception.
In a way one buys peace, however temporarily. Let me give an everyday example. Traditionally we are all conditioned from childhood to believe in God. But then as we grow up, our education makes us doubt this belief. This is a classic case of cognitive dissonance. I went through this phase. Every time  I went to a temple, my doubting mind which is educated would tell me: “Can’t you see how you and many others are wasting time in the name of a blind faith?. At the same time if I skipped any ritual enjoined by religion or  tradition, my innocent mind would quip: “Hey, you’re missing out on something important in life. Don’t be misguided by your science education”. The resolution came late  in my life after setting up a proper inquiry into all issues. Now whatever I do, I do with clarity and awareness. The point I’m trying to make is very simple. Can we resolve conflicts without self-deception? If we can’t, we end up leading lives without any direction. To resolve conflicts, we need to set up an inquiry and study all points of view objectively. The inquiry, in the particular example cited above, can either lead one to becoming an atheist or a firm believer. It may be right or wrong. But at least the internal conflict is resolved and one lives in peace and without cognitive dissonance.

Here are a few more interesting, if trivial, examples of self-deception and Cognitive dissonance in our daily lives. Let us say that our dietician convinces us to take a low-fat, low-carb diet. But then when we see a spread of yummy cakes and ice creams on a table in a wedding party, our mind is in a state of conflict or dissonance. How do we resolve it? We eat it anyway and justify that saying things like: “We live only once. Let us live it up. In any case, exceptional violations of diet rules should not matter”. This is a classic example of post hoc rationalisation. That is, you do a forbidden act and then find ways of justifying the act.

The other day I was reading an article on American history (after the 2nd world war) which provided the following interesting case of post hoc rationalization: Franklin Roosevelt, after the second world war, uprooted hundreds of Japanese Americans based on a mere suspicion that they would indulge in sabotage. Having committed the atrocities, a govt spokesperson says: the very fact no sabotage has taken place strongly justified the action against them.

Here’s a trivial example of post hoc rationalization: let us say you have missed your favourite music concert you wanted to attend badly. After the event is over, you will perhaps look for every bit of news which will minimise your disappointment. For instance, you will be pleased to hear someone say: “The artist was not in his elements this time….. Also, there was a big traffic jam on the route to the concert hall and it’s good you didn’t attempt to go”. And finally an irrefutable philosophical justification will ensue: “Whatever happens is for the good”.

After all, human mind, in spite of evolution over millions of years, still has several limitations. Let us accept that the human mind is still a work in progress. But an awareness of its limitations helps us to recognise instances of self-deception at least on serious existential issues and take corrective actions.

 

Published in: on April 22, 2017 at 4:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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