THE expression ‘cognitive dissonance’ been mentioned several times in TCW Defending Freedom articles, especially those relating to the government’s and population’s response to the coronavirus. It seems timely to explain the subject a little more.
The term was coined by the American social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. As George Cooper wrote in TCW Defending Freedom last year, he investigated an apocalyptic cult who expected to be the few rescued by aliens from a devastating flood on December 21, 1954. How did the cult members respond when the apocalypse failed to materialise? That they had got it all wrong?
Rather, they said that their actions had successfully averted the event. They went further. Had they not foreseen the threat, they would not have been able to take steps to avert it; a canny heads-we-win, tails-you-lose interpretation of things.
In Festinger’s definition, cognitive dissonance describes a psychic condition of tension and discomfort brought about by a palpable contradiction in an individual’s mental world. This unease must be eliminated. Accordingly, something in the individual’s conscious awareness has to be invented, altered, ignored or denied.
If a person does not want to accept something, he won’t. It’s as simple as that. You can assault and harangue him with all the evidence you like; it won’t make the slightest difference. The more vigorously you contest his cherished notions, the more desperately he clings to them. People are invested in their perceptual schemata. They have spent a lifetime building them up. They are loath to relinquish them. It is too frightening and too disruptive to have them challenged.
This is the big problem psychologists and psychiatrists face. Presented with a client who displays, to take an example, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, or a phobia, it can be extraordinarily difficult to get to the root of the problem, and just as difficult to get the client to abandon the maladaptive behaviour. Why, one constantly wonders, when the behaviour is making the client’s life so miserable?
Put simply (perhaps too simply) the maladaptive behaviour has the paradoxical function of making the client feel relatively safe, protecting him from something far worse. It’s much easier for the claustrophobic individual to avoid stepping into a lift than to confront the dreadful, repressed childhood experience that gave rise to the phobia. This can often be demonstrated by the use of cognitive behaviour therapy.
Using CBT techniques, over a period of several days, a client can be gently weaned off his fear of using a lift: first just walk past it; next stand in front; next stand in front and press the button; next stand in front and let the doors open; next step inside and then step straight back out again. The whole process is broken down into piecemeal unthreatening steps, so that anxiety can be managed. And what happens at the end of all that? The client can use a lift, but now he has suddenly and inexplicably developed a new terror of walking through an underpass.
Back to the drawing board, or the analyst’s couch, as they say.