Tolerating cognitive dissonance

November 4, 2012

The ability to live easily amidst contradictions is something Fitzgerald famously celebrated as a mark of intelligence. It is readily mistaken for the key to intelligent self-interest, one step up from lying to oneself for peace of mind when pressured to accept a falsehood, and one step down from admitting that even if the apparent truth would be risky to endorse, it is more likely to be true than the official line.

But as our troubled gut feelings like to remind us, like it or not, on some level we are all concrete thinkers who reject many apparent contradictions at face value. A sense of hypocrisy is tolerable up to a point, but there are times when we experience that dissonance physically as the focus of a passing feeling called regret. Conveniently, this dissonance can be resolved in hindsight, by rationalizing the regrets away.

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Rationalizing and giving a dissimulating excuse are internal and external versions of the same arguments, but the only motive for rationalizing (internally) is fear of experiencing private shame. After all, privately felt dissonance carries no risk of embarrassment or punishment, unless somehow the belief you had done wrong would drive you to confess against your own self-interest to avoid the further private shame of hypocrisy.

If shame inspired no such fear perhaps it would not safeguard right action, but freedom to rationalize makes it a poor guardian of good conscience. Poorly armed against the self-serving biases of the ego, vulnerability to shame is easily rebuffed on principle as a slave mentality – as if willingness to confess against one’s self interest were a capitulation to the mob and not to a sense of higher purpose that the penitent wrong-doer shares and takes refuge in if the mob proceeds to condemn him on his own testimony.

Pervasive apathy towards injustice certainly suits the “sensible knave” described humorously by David Hume: “That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule, but is liable to many exceptions; and he, it may perhaps be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and takes advantage of all the exceptions.”

Hence the refreshing quality to antisocial aphorisms like those of the banned Soviet poet Kharms (the pseudonym of Daniil Yuvachev, who apparently starved to death in a lunatic asylum).

  • “Poisoning children is cruel. But something has to be done about them!”
  • “Old women who go around thinking sensible thoughts should really be apprehended with bear traps.”

Perhaps it is only the self-righteous who are completely unwilling to admit that any of their motives are selfish. In secular societies people worry little these days about self-righteousness. But whether inspired by religion or not, self-righteousness is characterized by the kind of self-serving bias that doesn’t discriminate at all. It gradually poisons one’s instincts by requiring unswerving indifference to cognitive dissonance to rule out any vulnerability to self-doubt.

This keeps the emotions boxed in, until they override reason with a more convincing deception that leads to seemingly self-defeating adaptive depravities instead – going mad, seeking escapism in addictions, etc. Indeed, refusal to take morality (or reality) seriously may be a more authentic description of a slave mentality, a reactionary hostility to the idea of justice in a world that excludes you from access to justice when you are the one being exploited and victimized.

But there is something nihilistic about rebelliously refusing to be shackled by a capacity for regret on principle, for it leads to rejecting all attachments that could be lost through one’s own choices, just to avoid ever circling back to bitter regret.

What sort of secular consensus could we reach as social animals to avoid these false alternatives? I especially like the way Eckhart Tolle cites an alternative translation of the Biblical word for “sin” in A New Earth, understood as merely missing the point of human existence, conveyed in a word also used for “missing the mark” with connotations of living “unskillfully, blindly” and merely through clumsy error “thus to suffer and cause suffering.”

In this context perhaps a wiser course than rationalizing away any personal regrets would be to live in a way more responsive to dissonance when deciding how to act (i.e., “acting in good faith”).

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