According to Psychology Today, the term cognitive dissonance is defined thusly:
Cognitive dissonance is a term for the state of discomfort felt when two or more modes of thought contradict each other. The clashing cognitions may include ideas, beliefs, or the knowledge that one has behaved in a certain way.
I’ve been aware of the concept for many years.
We’re all familiar with the conflict of ideologies between different groups here in this troubled world. Like, say, between the Proud Boys and the Black Lives Matter folk, or between Catholics and Protestants in certain places (okay, I’m thinking Ireland here, the version I’ve experienced in television and movies if not the real place), or between the antivaxxer Jenny McCarthy fans and rational people. Cognitive dissonance is about this same sort of conflict, only internally, within one person’s mind.
The theory suggests that people are resistant to inconsistencies within their own thoughts and beliefs. Some may be better at compartmentalizing their beliefs than others, which lessens the severity of the dissonance, but most of us have experienced some level of discomfort when our thoughts, beliefs, and even our memories seem to crash into conflicting information or evidence that refutes what we think we know.
I’ve conducted no scientific studies into this theory. I never will. However, I do bring some examples of the phenomenon from my own life. The Socratic dictum suggests that understanding ourselves is the key to understanding everyone else, right?
Here’s a big one. How can I rationalize my belief in God and my belief in Science (yes, I made a proper noun out of it: sue me), which frequently seem to be in contradiction?
Many atheists use Science as their trump card in debates. (And, no, the “trump” isn’t capitalized; I’m not willing to give up the word just because of one person.) Personally, I feel the same amount of disdain for rabid atheists who think everyone should believe the same things they do as I do towards rabid fundamentalists who feel the same way. I personally believe in a huge gray area between the black and white poles of any issue. As in my politics, I am there somewhere, squarely in the middle of the road.
As a lifelong fan of science fiction and science fact, I struggled with this particular contradiction at an early age. I was raised to believe in the existence of God and Jesus, and in the idea of the Christian Bible as an infallible “good” book. Mine was not a particularly religious household, however, and my father often claimed to be an atheist, so most of my knowledge of Christianity came from my mother and my own reading. Some of my beliefs on the subject came from other family members and, believe it or not, from my church experiences.
Along the way, however, I wrote a few of the subroutines that make up my personal programming. Some things didn’t add up in my mind. I discovered that there were many writers and historical figures whom I admired who, in fact, did not believe in the existence of God. This created some dissonance within my own brain as I attempted to understand this fact. Inconsistencies within the Bible itself led me to the conclusion that it couldn’t be wholly the divine Word of an infallible God. I would accept divinely inspired, because the introduction of humankind to any equation leads to imperfect results.
Obviously, I wasn’t a biblical literalist. Just admitting that is tantamount to heresy among some of the people I know.
As a child, when I questioned any of the things related to my professed religion, I was told that belief was based upon faith, not upon evidence or logic. In other words, I was thinking too much. However, the evidence I was confronted with almost daily seemed to refute many of my beliefs. When I sat down to dinner with my mom and dad, we had a prayer we had to say, one which I learned by rote:
God is great, God is good
Let us thank Him for our food
By His hand, we all are fed
Give us this day our daily bread
Even my father, the self-professed atheist, would recite it.
It was much like the Pledge of Allegiance, which I was required to recite every morning at school, hand over my heart, with the “under God” portion of the Pledge intact.
I accepted that God is great. I was on the fence about His being “good,” however. Even in the Bible, God claimed responsibility for many things that didn’t seem necessarily aligned with “good.” Plus, I knew that bad things often happened to good people.
A young classmate of mine in junior high died from leukemia. She seemed like a perfectly nice person. Certainly, she didn’t deserve to die so young.
Tragedies and calamities forge the faith of some people, but they made my own faith a little shaky. How could I reconcile the fact that people in the world were going to bed hungry every night in my country, not just in countries we label as “third-world,” with a prayer that gave God credit for feeding all of us.
It’s not meant to be taken literally, I was told, by someone who believed that everything in the Bible was actually meant to be taken literally. No, the “by His hand we all are fed” is a metaphor: God isn’t personally running a food bank. There are people who are not being fed.
I understood that, in using the Scientific Method, God needs to be removed from the process, regardless of your personal beliefs. This doesn’t mean that all scientists are atheists. This is just an example of that compartmentalization I was talking about earlier. I’ve done it my entire life without realizing it was also a coping mechanism. The Scientific Method accepts all data, not just data that confirms a firmly held hypothesis. In fact, many scientific “discoveries” come about because the data doesn’t confirm the hypothesis, and a good scientist wants to know why.
You probably want examples. Even with my penchant for tangential thinking, I’m not going to take the bait on that. Examples are everywhere. The Scientific Method is open-ended. When we have a hypothesis—for example, a surgeon washing their hands prior to performing surgery will have fewer patients who die—science looks for evidence that falsifies the hypothesis. “Proof” is a concept in mathematics/logic. Science never proves that a hypothesis is true, just that it’s not demonstrably false. Future evidence may change things. Even the word “law” is used infrequently in science these days, since the word suggests—-to many—that anything labelled as such is infallible and cannot be disproven.
Newton’s Law of Gravity defined the observations Isaac was able to make at the time, without attempting to explain why the law was, in fact, a law. Knowing that acceleration due to gravity, here on Earth, is 9.8 meters per second per second is a handy “fact” to have in physics. There’s no doubt about it. But asking why this is so leads to entire new branches of scientific thought and exploration.
There is no absolute truth in science, which is the main thing that puts it at odds with religion. At least, for some people. I can’t speak for any religion, even my own, but I felt like I was encouraged not to question anything I was told in church or by otherwise informed adults. In Science, you are encouraged to question everything. This seemed more aligned with what I felt to be “true” in my head.
God had to be removed from the Scientific Method. When the answer to every question is “Because God made it that way,” critical thinking is entirely shut down. The open-mindedness of Science is the main reason I’m able to reconcile my belief in a God with my belief in the Scientific Method.
I tried being an atheist for a bit. It didn’t stick. But, I’m no evangelist: I couldn’t care less what you believe.
By the way, I’ve had racist members of my own family who firmly believed that the “mark of Cain” described in the Bible, Cain’s punishment for killing his brother Abel, was that Cain and his descendants were black people. I can’t make this stuff up, and I wouldn’t want to. It’s a perfect example of how people twist the “infallible Word of God” to suit their own purposes. It’s a good resource for you if you have a bone to pick with homosexuals or shellfish as well.
While the Religion vs. Science conflict may be the one big example of cognitive dissonance I’ve experienced and dealt with in my life, it isn’t the only one. There are many other examples. Arguably smaller, more personal examples.
Here’s one. My parents weren’t what I would consider to be drinkers. They weren’t teetotalers, and, even though my mom was raised Baptist, they weren’t what I would call anti-alcohol by any stretch of the imagination. I remember cocktail parties in Puerto Rico when I was four or five years old. On one occasion when I was a teenager—the occasion was New Year’s Eve, I think—I arrived home after a night of drinking, trying to be quiet in order not to disturb my parents, only to find my mom stumbling around the house, more intoxicated than I was. She had an angry red mark across the bridge of her nose because she had been struck by the lid of the toilet seat while she was vomiting into the bowl. Too much champagne.
These were the exceptions, not the rule. My parents rarely had alcohol in the house that I knew about. I would have known because, like any self-respecting teenager, I actively searched the house for things I shouldn’t be allowed to have and frequently came up empty. After I moved away from home, my mom did develop a drinking problem. Her drink of choice then was George Dickel whiskey, and the problem became a particularly hairy one for a short amount of time, but she seemed to conquer her demons.
I was dancing with the devil myself during this time, so I wasn’t really there for her, emotionally or geographically, but I’ve always been proud of her for kicking the habit. Assuming that she did, of course, and I’m not deluding myself.
My father, on the other hand, I’d never seen drunk or even buzzed. As far as I knew. He had stomach problems, among other issues, and ate antacid tablets like Tic Tacs. He was often an angry, violent man while being sober, so I never wanted to see how he’d act under the influence.
My dad didn’t drink.
This is an example of a personal belief. My dad was not a drinker. He developed a seizure disorder in his thirties that required him to take some strong medication like Phenobarbital and Dilantin. I’m sure alcohol consumption wasn’t encouraged with his prescriptions, but I know that doesn’t prevent some people from drinking anyway. However, I never saw any evidence of his drinking. No empty bottles or cans. No alcohol fume breath. No trips to the liquor store. Like ever.
He never preached against alcohol either, though neither of my parents condoned my rebellious behavior. Still, when I finally left home, I also left with the belief that my father just wasn’t a drinker.
My youngest brother visited me here in Arkansas a year or so ago. He brought his wife and baby girl with him, of course. Mike is fifteen years younger than I am. In effect, we grew up in different families, even though we had the same parents. I didn’t realize how different until the conversation somehow turned to alcohol. We were drinking alcohol during the conversation, so that’s probably how we arrived at the subject.
I made the comment that our father was never a drinker, and Mike looked at me like I had suddenly grown a third eye.
“What are you talking about?” Mike said. “That’s practically all he did when we were growing up.” His “we” included my brother Travis, who is thirteen years younger than I am. I am not a part of that “we.”
Boom. My personally held belief ran smack dab into the immovable object that was my baby brother’s anecdotal evidence, which I also believed. As the Scientific Method requires the reformulation of hypotheses in the face of contradictory evidence, this new “fact” about my late father required me to reexamine my own beliefs.
One possibility is that my father also developed a drinking problem around the same time that my mother did, which makes a certain kind of sense. My parents were in the process of destroying their second marriage to each other at the time. I was around for the first divorce and made the conscious decision to not take part in the second chapter, which also ended in divorce not, thankfully, murder. My father and I were never close, so it’s not surprising that I had no idea what he was doing.
Another possibility is that my dad was a secret drinker all along and was just too good at hiding the fact from me. Which would be a double shame because I could have been stealing booze from him along with his cigarettes.
Cognitive dissonance required that I change what I believed. My new hypothesis is that My father was a drinker: I just didn’t know it. At any rate, in spite of my initial shock and confusion, I’ve processed this information and decided that I can live with it.
I’ve always hated the phrase “A person’s perception is their reality,” just because I had one supervisor who used it as a weapon against me. Reluctantly, I admit that I can’t falsify the statement. We see examples of it every day. You can’t use logic and evidence or good common sense to attempt to convince a true MAGA believer that no one stole the last presidential election from Donald Trump. Don’t even try. While their perception may not be everyone’s reality—and I hope it isn’t—that doesn’t change how they feel. They’re never going to believe any evidence presented by the “Fake News,” are they? You are merely being duped by the media.
Their beliefs don’t make it true. Just as I have to accept that my beliefs don’t make the reality I’m swimming in the true prime reality either. I have to be willing to feel my universe occasionally tilt on its axis to dislodge a few false beliefs.
It happened again just recently.
Now, compared to my cosmic ramblings about God and the Scientific Method, about my father’s personal relationship with booze, what I’m about to say seems even smaller and more inconsequential. It’s all part and parcel of the same idea, though.
I listen to The Cars‘ self-titled debut album from 1978 at least once a year. Maybe more often. It is one of my favorite albums. Recently, I also revisited the albums Candy-O (1979), Heartbeat City (1984), and Move Like This (2011). This made me spend more time thinking about the band than I normally do.
Move Like This is significant for several reasons. It was the band’s first album since 1987’s Door to Door. Ric Ocasek famously announced, way back in 1997, that the band would never reunite. He was both right and wrong. The album was also the first one recorded since the 2000 death from pancreatic cancer of bassist Benjamin Orr. Since Orr couldn’t appear on the album, the band technically never did reunite, just as Ocasek promised. It was also the final album from the band. Ric Ocasek himself would pass away in 2019.
I suppose Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes and David Robinson could still tour using the band name. Right? Well, I don’t completely know the legality of that, but it seems right. I once saw a band billing itself as The Guess Who with only one original bandmember. The bassist, I think.
Ric Ocasek was the band. That’s what I believed. He was the principal songwriter, sharing writing credit on only a handful of songs with Greg Hawkes. He was the lead singer, the frontman and most recognizable member of the band.
All of this is true. Mostly. Ocasek did provide the lead vocals on the majority of the band’s songs. Sure, we all remember that Benjamin Orr sang lead on “Drive,” probably the biggest hit of their career. It was an Ocasek song (the video also featured Ocasek’s future wife Paulina Porizkova). Letting Orr sing the song was, to me, like The Beatles occasionally letting Ringo Starr sing a song.
I apologize to both Ringo Starr and the late Benjamin Orr for my last comment. I happen to like the songs that Ringo sang with the lads from Liverpool. I also like “Drive,” although it’s a little less rock ‘n’ roll than I prefer. The truth is that I wasn’t giving Benjamin Orr credit where it was due. Here I am, twenty-two years after Mr. Orr’s death, prepared to correct this grievous error.
Benjamin Orr (birth name: Benjamin Orzechowski) was the group’s bassist, certainly. He was never even replaced in the group. When the band reformed for Move Like This, Greg Hawkes, the keyboardist, played the bass parts on keyboard or on an actual bass, or else prerecorded samples were used. Orr was also listed as co-lead singer. While the songs were all Ric Ocasek’s, Orr sang lead on a good percentage of them.
I was a casual fan of The Cars at best, I admit. I never saw them in concert, and I watched only a couple of television performances. I didn’t realize until only recently that Benjamin Orr sang lead on “Just What I Needed,” “Moving in Stereo,” “Bye Bye Love,” “Let’s Go,” “Candy-O,” as well as “Drive.” I believe that if I were compiling a top-10 list of my favorite songs by the group, all six of these would be there.
That’s too statistically significant to be a coincidence.
So, here I am, twenty-two years after Orr’s death, admitting that it seems I am secretly a huge fan of the late bassist, who never got the credit he deserved—from me, at least—when he was alive or in the decades since. This is not intended as a slight against Ocasek either. They were his songs, and I’m certain that the reason Orr recorded them was that Ocasek knew he would do a better job on them than he could.
Still, finding out that Orr did the lead vocals on these songs created a bit of cognitive dissonance in my brain. More of an Ah-Ha moment than actual disorientation and confusion, but dissonance, nonetheless. A thing that I was certain about was once again proven to be false.
That sound you’re hearing is me, reformulating my hypothesis. The universe will right itself on its axis again shortly.