The role of cognitive dissonance in our echo chambers4 min read . Updated: 21 Oct 2020, 09:09 PM IST
Greater the resources we invest in our perspectives, the more stubbornly we hold on to them
When was the last time you admitted you were wrong? When was the last time you accepted an idea that was contrary to your beliefs? In recent years, a peculiar behavioural trend has emerged across the world. There is now a tendency to debate every issue under the sun, but, rather dangerously, those with contrarian views are increasingly being seen with contempt.
Earlier, there was clarity on which issues were subjects of debate and which weren’t. Political views have always been subject to intense contestation. On the other hand, issues involving the opinion of experts were not debated. We never questioned the prescription of a doctor. But US President Donald Trump questioning the views of health experts, and worse still, disregarding them, is not a one-off. These are signs of the present times in which there is a tendency to dismiss an expert’s view just because it is contrary to one’s own. This is now a reality across almost all facets of life.
With the arrival of social media, everyone has got a medium to express one’s point of view, even on topics one doesn’t have even a modicum of knowledge. Many use the medium to criticize even the opinions of experts. They usually consider their own views to be perfect, while they see alternate views as totally irrelevant. What is adding fuel to this fire is the commonly-held notion that those who criticize an idea are considered more knowledgeable than those who appreciate it. This provides an extra incentive for people to go on a debating spree.
Robert B. Cialdini, author of the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, reminds us that the act of writing down a thought, and more so reading it aloud to a public audience, dramatically increases one’s commitment to that thought. Social media makes it very easy to write down a thought and broadcast it to the larger public. Many of us do not realize that every time we type out our ideas on a social-media keypad, they get reinforced in our brains. Every time we enter a debate on an online platform and vigorously defend those ideas from criticism, our commitment to those ideas becomes even stronger and our dislike of the opposite view intensifies.
This constant reinforcing of one’s own ideas at the expense of contrarian ideas occurs at a non-conscious level.
The other tendency that has enabled the demolition of contrarian views is that of demonizing the opposition by re-framing it to the extreme. Those who criticize national leaders are framed as “anti-nationals". Those who criticize religious beliefs are framed as atheists and infidels. In this strategy, the idea is to project every criticism as a weapon that is being used to destroy them and so paint the opposition as an enemy. Here, there is no space for any respect for the opposition. The focus is to arouse our tribal instincts that call for total annihilation of opponents.
In the 1950s, Leon Festinger introduced the concept of “cognitive dissonance" to explain the fundamental human nature of justifying the wisdom of one’s own choices and finding reasons to dismiss the alternatives. One interesting facet of this behavioural phenomenon is that as the resources—in terms of time, money and effort—one invests in a point-of-view go up, one’s level of certainty about that view dramatically increases. Even if there is clear evidence that one’s point-of-view is wrong, and the opposite perspective is right, such a person would find it very difficult to accept the other point-of-view. The cognitive dissonance theory explains why even educated people can desperately hold on to totally unreasonable views.
Arthur C. Brooks, author of the book Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, says that many of us live in intellectual silos, “friending" and following only the people and sources we already agree with. It’s comforting to hear that you’re right all the time. It provides a false sense of security because it keeps our ideas safe from any challenge. According to Brooks, it is important that we find ways to escape from this dangerous “unreality".
We need to surround ourselves with people who are different from us. Organizations should create teams that comprise people with diverse levels of experience and backgrounds. It is always good to be a part of groups like college alumni associations or social-media chats that have people of varying ages and specializations. When we live among people who are very different from us, as Arthur C. Brooks mentions in his book, never try to insult someone into agreement. The more you insult a person’s ideas, the harder it gets to change those ideas. We should never assume the motives of others. Many a time, we tend to dismiss another’s idea not because it is bad, but because we assume an ulterior motive of him or her in coming up with it. We should have intelligent debates over ideas, but should not attribute dark unverified motives to these.
As Charlie Munger said, “We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side." The abolition of opposition and disrespect for contrarian ideas could drown all forms of innovation in the muddy waters of stagnant, old ideas. We need to have the courage to kill our old ideas and accept new ones even if they are contrary to our own. Only then will growth take place.