Janus the two-headed Roman god and cognitive dissonance

In the days before the internet and social media there were moments of figurative darkness when we could be away from the public gaze. In those moments, alone with our thoughts we could allow ourselves to be free of the constraints and necessary filtering imposed by social norms, group baseline behavioral standards and broadly accepted social values.

The internet, social media, always-on connections and a digital culture of oversharing have made the “dark” places in the world where we could be unfiltered, few and far in between and easily exposed with just a little bit of metadata hunting. That is producing its own share of issues.

As Janus, the Roman two-faced god amply illustrates, cognitive dissonance has always been with us. In the pre-internet days all the filters, norms and constraints mentioned in my opening paragraph applied. Arguably we had fewer opportunities to confront our own contradictions or fewer opportunities to present contradictory images of ourselves and engage in behavior that leads to angst. We aren’t in those days any more so what exactly is happening now?

We are, to put it mildly, in a world of psychological, emotional and cognitive hurt and in danger of losing ourselves. I am not overstating this. When the many aspects of who we are and what we say we believe in were contained within contexts that did not much communicate with each other what personal angst we felt could also be handily cordoned off and kept separate (and private).

Technology has facilitated and accelerated the context collapse we are experiencing now. This is a problem because it brings us face-to-face with our contradictions in a near-immediate feedback loop. Social media is a reflection that’s unforgiving when it comes to imprecision.

How do we deal with it?

Core Values and Core Tenets

Let’s start with a couple of basic statements. All beliefs are contextual. Every belief is a rule. Every rule will have exceptions. All exceptions rely on context.

You may believe that it is wrong to kill but faced with an attacker who is threatening your life and no other way out you will be forced to make an exception to this rule and kill.

Cognitive dissonance, the angst we feel because we cognitively sense the gap between what we say we believe in and what we do, happens when there are no means to satisfactorily bridge that gap. Even worse, there are instances when by trying to bridge it we fail to work out exactly what the issues are and only end up in a worse inner struggle than we started off with.

Psychologists explain how there are three ways to deal with cognitive dissonance (or at least reduce it).

  • Change the behavior that’s causing it (in our example above, take the risk of not killing your attacker and being killed yourself). This strategy is always a bit of a gamble in the sense that if you’re wrong (and get killed in our example) it doesn’t really matter and if you manage to win (and not get killed) you feel 100% vindicated by what is a classic case of confirmation bias.
  • Change the belief by acquiring fresh data. In keeping with our example, finding out about real cases in which killing as a first response to any potential threat is socially acceptable changes the gap between our belief that it is wrong to kill and our angst at having been forced to do so.
  • Devalue the belief that gives rise to dissonance in the first instance. Suppose we convince ourselves that in a dog-eat-dog world the belief that it’s wrong to kill is OK but totally unrealistic and outdated? Then a “whatever it takes” mentality excuses pretty much every exception to every rule we have.

All of these approaches require significant re-engineering of our belief system and offer no lasting guarantee that dissonance will go away. Plus, they can get us into deeper waters by excusing behavior we may find impossible to live with at a later date.

We examine all this because there are solutions we can apply. Because the brain learns lessons that are context-sensitive it is impossible to live by rules that have no exceptions or work to produce so many exceptions that they, ultimately, render the rules we try to live by meaningless.

So here’s how you go about it in a different way.

  • Find out who you are. Really.
  • Work out what’s important to you. What is your continuity in every context?
  • Accept change, use data and constantly re-examine your beliefs.

Work hard to become, in other words, focused, virtuous, evolving.

Action Plan: Become a better version of yourself.

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