Cognitive Dissonance

Not-ListeningNo matter how good your ideas are, people may just not be listening. And it’s not really their fault.

The brain has a lot of work to do. Right now it’s processing signals from your eyes and constructing a conscious image of the world. It’s also scanning that information for signs of danger. If it sees any, it will trigger your fight or flight response and then deliver the danger message to your conscious mind. It’s taking in auditory and other sensory input. It’s building up a map of your body and its exact position in relation to other objects in the world and constantly updating this. It’s monitoring your body for any signals that something might be wrong. None of these things are simple. If you’re reading, you’re also constructing meaning out of text-symbols and engaging in abstract thought.

There’s only so much work it can do, and anything it can do to lighten its processing burden, it will do. Something it does not want to waste time on is revisiting things it already knows to be true or false. That’s why when you contradict someone’s beliefs, they tend to ignore you. The brain considers the matter settled. It doesn’t have time to reevaluate all of the thousands of facts it has accumulated on a daily basis.

Knowing this has helped me not take it too personally if someone doesn’t believe me about something, even if I’ve painstakingly researched it. It’s not necessarily a sign that the other person doesn’t like me, or that they’re particularly belligerent or willingly lying to themselves. It’s just that it takes a lot to convince the brain that it’s time to let go of old concepts.

It’s called cognitive dissonance when evidence conflicts with our beliefs. It’s really uncomfortable and the brain wants to end the dissonance. You can do that by examining the new evidence carefully and either changing the old belief or discarding the evidence as faulty. But more often we ignore the evidence. We say it’s untrue or irrelevant, rationalize it away, or just plain forget about it. Or, worse, we’ll dig in our heels and do more of what the person is hoping to talk us out of. And that’s true for the best of us.

I’m sure we’ve all run into cognitive dissonance in others. It may have seemed like stubbornness or hypocrisy. Maybe it’s Pagans who worship the Earth but don’t recycle. Maybe it’s people who passionately hate wolf hunts but eat cows. It’s a lot harder to see in ourselves, but I assure you, our brains are also trying to conserve time and processing power.

The cool thing is that knowing about cognitive dissonance can encourage us to take a moment and reflect before we toss out uncomfortable ideas. It can also help us take a breath when a friend, loved one, or a stranger on the internet ignores the world-changing information we’re trying to share with them. The brain doesn’t want its world to change. You have to give it a good enough reason to try, because cognitive dissonance really is painful. If your worldview has ever shifted you know how hard it can be.

Something to keep in mind is that the person doesn’t evaluate your evidence, decide you’re right, and then decide to keep believing something false. The evaluation never happens.

We’re even more likely to dig in our heels if someone contradicts a belief that’s important to us, or that challenges the way we view ourselves. This comes up all the time when discussing animal rights. Let’s say a person is really compassionate or loves animals. If you recommend veganism she may feel like you’re slighting her compassion, and now she’s no longer listening. And let’s face it, a lot of times we really are slighting her compassion. A lot of activists do this. I know I have. Have you?

That’s why shaming almost never works. We often use shaming tactics because we hope threatening a person’s self-image will motivate them to change, but it’s because self-image is so important that people resist.

Is it just me or does human communication often seem counter-intuitive?

Finding Their Motivation

I was vegetarian-leaning long before I became vegetarian, and later fully vegan. Nothing about my opinion towards animals changed. So what did? I turned 18 and then finished high school. I felt empowered to make my own choices. If people didn’t want to cook vegetarian for me, I was now in a place to do my own shopping and cooking. It was as simple as that. I didn’t feel powerful enough to act the way I wanted to act before. But that’s not what I told myself. I told myself we need to eat meat; that humans and animals have a sacred predator-prey relationship in the web of life; that my becoming vegetarian would never affect anything. For a while that litany was a constant meal-time ritual. Instead of saying grace over a meal, I made excuses.

So it’s not always immediately obvious why a person does what they do, even to themselves, or what they might not like about your suggestions. I wanted to be vegetarian since I was 14. When I was 17 and started hanging out with vegetarian friends at the Theosophical Society, I told them I admired vegetarianism but could never handle the commitment. Within a year I had made that commitment, have kept it for over 13 years, and intend to continue. I didn’t talk myself into it. I didn’t have an awakening – I’d already had that when I was 14. I simply felt ready. So maybe sometimes that’s the way you’ll be able to help someone who’s going through cognitive dissonance. They may already agree with you to some extent, but need help feeling up to the challenge.

Other than a few accidents or a few slip-ups as I was transitioning, I haven’t eaten meat since I became vegetarian or animal secretions since I became vegan. But I sure do eat a lot of corn chips. And ramen, candy, soda. As it turns out, it was pretty easy to structure my life around compassion for others, or to put it another way, around duty. Turns out, I’m not as willing to do it for my own health. I felt great when I was briefly eating by the Eat to Live diet, a diet low in fat and salt and centered around leafy greens. But my own health wasn’t enough to motivate me.

Maybe what I need to do is reframe the way I view my own health. Remind myself that the more energy I feel, the more good work I can do in the world. The more fun I can have with friends and family. Make it relevant to what’s important to me, not what seems like should be important on paper.

So maybe your passion is recycling. Someone you’re talking to may not really be concerned about plastic going into landfills. After all, covered-over landfills are kind of cool. They don’t look toxic; they’re big hills that you can stand on and survey the surrounding land. They have pipes spouting fire. Fire! But maybe this person is really into efficiency, and you can point out the inefficiency of constantly grabbing new resources when the ones we already have can be reused but are getting tossed in the dump. Maybe they’d care about the damage done when extracting new resources, and how reusing could prevent some of that.
It comes down to knowing your audience. I’m not suggesting you sit down and give them a litany of reasons to do whatever it is you want them to do. No one wants to sit through that. You have to know the person you’re talking to and what motivates them. Unless of course you have a blog, or a book, or some other platform and can explore these things in their own segments.

Since I find I’m most willing to do things out of a sense of duty, it helps to remember my larger goals and think of smaller things as part of them, as duties. Other people might benefit from thinking in terms of bringing a sacred vision of the world into being, like Starhawk suggests. They might be inspired by the goal of personal excellence, being their best self, or helping others be their best selves.

If you’re trying to reframe your own passions in a way that appeals to others, it’s important to still have a genuine conversation instead of a canned speech. Something else you can do is actually listen to them if they bring up objections or counter-points. Sure, you may have heard the objections a thousand times, but they weren’t there for all that. You’re expecting them to sit and listen to what’s important to you, have an open mind, and be convinced by the evidence. All while they might quite passionately disagree with you or have some strong other reason not to listen. Will you do them the same courtesy?

When someone behaves in a way that we find abhorrent, it’s so easy to conclude that they don’t have any values. But people do have values. (Even sociopaths value themselves, but that’s an academic point. I’m not suggesting we can get through to everyone). Whatever worldview you’re trying to promote might be completely relevant to their values, but since your values are different, you might never have seen it that way. It’s a good opportunity to see things from a fresh perspective.

In other posts I’ve mentioned that I kind of hate that humans don’t just calculate what’s best and then do that. I resent that we have to find out people’s motivations, engage their passions instead of presenting a topic in symbolic logic. Then I remember that I talked myself out of what I thought was right for four years. My initial reason for going vegetarian, and then finally feeling powerful enough to do it four years later, was entirely emotional. And as Sam Harris points out in his book The Moral Landscape, to be convinced by logic, we have to emotionally value logic. We’re emotional creatures and I’m learning to accept and embrace that. That acceptance, including an acceptance of cognitive dissonance, has made me much more at peace as an activist. Instead of resenting human nature I can work with it. I’m not as angry all the time.

Embracing some facts about human nature – that we all make decisions emotionally, that we have values even if we seem belligerent or rude, that we want to do the best we can but might have some obstacles in our way – helps me come from a place of love and service instead of judgment. And as I’ve said before, I think people can really hear that in your voice and in your writing. I’ve also accepted my own foibles and that I need to renew my commitment sometimes. To veganism, by watching videos of animal agriculture that are emotionally hard to watch. To helping people be their best selves, by listening to psychology podcasts and writing blogs like these. Sometimes there’s nothing so inspiring as a deadline!

Speaking of deadlines, when you have an activist conversation with someone, do you expect change instantaneously? I had been 18 for some months before I went vegetarian. Heck, I’d wanted to do it for four whole years. Sometimes people need more time to let it sink in, more time to contemplate it, more time to deal with cognitive dissonance. Getting inappropriately mad or judgmental isn’t likely to motivate them, at least not in the direction you want. Do you want to be an inspiration or a task-master? You don’t have to support x behavior, but you can respect someone and how hard change can be.

If you’re an animal advocate, you probably didn’t just suddenly start loving animals one day. You probably loved them for years, and that love blossomed into veganism – probably vegetarianism first. I liken this to a Buddhist teacher’s thoughts on relationships I learned in an episode of the Interdependence Project podcast. This teaching says that in a relationship, it’s not truly love until about ten years into it. Before that point you may like them, and you may love the way the way they make you feel, but that’s not the same as loving them. I agree, but I am still perfectly comfortable calling it love much earlier. Why? Because there are many types of love. A younger love may still be very self-involved. It might not be unconditional yet. But it can still be something wonderful and important to you.

Telling someone, “You don’t really love your spouse yet,” is insulting. Telling them, “Just wait. If you work at it, it gets even better – more committed, more about the other person and less about you,” isn’t an insult. So if you’re vegan and tell your friends, “You must not really love your cat because you eat cows,” it’s not going to accomplish very much. But it’s not an insult to say their love for animals could use some deepening. Couldn’t all love use some deepening?


Cognitive Dissonance


An Animal-Friendly Ostara

As I write this, Ostara is right around the corner. For those who celebrate Ostara, Easter, or similar festivals, here are some ways you can make your celebrations friendlier for the animals.
How to Have a Vegan Easter