By Observer for New Age Islam
11 September, 2014
The Role of Cognitive Dissonance
Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said in his 1925 book, Science and the Modern World: “It is easy enough to find a [self-consistent] theory . . . , provided that you are content to disregard half your evidence. The moral temper required for the pursuit of truth, includes an unflinching determination to take the whole evidence into account.”
If you observe closely, you will notice that there are many people who show an unflinching determination to disregard half of the relevant evidence!
In Psychology this is called cognitive bias where we pay attention only to facts that support our prejudices. Uncomfortable evidence that contradicts our theory causes what is called cognitive dissonance. An honest way of dealing with cognitive dissonance is to revise our opinion/theory taking the full facts of the case into consideration. Dishonest ways are by way of discounting, falsifying, or by ignoring altogether the evidence that does not suit our purpose.
Not everyone feels cognitive dissonance to the same degree. People with a higher need for consistency and certainty in their lives usually feel the effects of cognitive dissonance more than those who have a lesser need for such consistency. People who have not trained themselves to deal honestly with cognitive dissonance become habitual liars and feel nothing. It is about these people that the Quran says:
(2:16) These are they who have bartered Guidance for error: But their traffic is profitless, and they have lost true direction,(17) Their similitude is that of a man who kindled a fire; when it lighted all around him, Allah took away their light and left them in utter darkness. So they could not see. (18) Deaf, dumb, and blind, they will not return (to the correct path).
People who have learnt to suppress cognitive dissonance will rarely change their stand on any issue no matter even if they are proved wrong. This is so since their decision in the first place is not based on an objective analysis and the truth in any case is unimportant to such people. Pride and arrogance prevent such people from changing their stand even if proved wrong. The Quran says about such people:
(6:109) They swear their strongest oaths by Allah, that if a (special) sign came to them, by it they would believe. Say: "Certainly (all) signs are in the power of Allah: but what will make you (Muslims) realise that (even) if (special) signs came, they will not believe."?
(7:101) Such were the towns whose story We (thus) relate unto thee: There came indeed to them their messengers with clear (signs): But they would not believe what they had rejected before. Thus doth Allah seal up the hearts of those who reject faith.
(7:146) Those who behave arrogantly on the earth in defiance of right - them will I turn away from My signs: Even if they see all the signs, they will not believe in them; and if they see the way of right conduct, they will not adopt it as the way; but if they see the way of error, that is the way they will adopt. For they have rejected our signs, and failed to take warning from them.
Can A Person Suffering From The Disease Of Suppressing Cognitive Dissonance Change Himself?
A person has to first accept that there is a problem and make a moral choice to change and seek God’s help for changing.
People must realize that refusing to learn to deal honestly with cognitive dissonance in its most basic form, is a lie to oneself and self-deception. Matz and his colleagues (2008) found that people who were extraverted were less likely to feel the negative impact of cognitive dissonance and were also less likely to change their mind. Introverts, on the other hand, deal more honestly with cognitive dissonance. This is hardly surprising since introverts are concerned with self-image and telling a lie to one self is more difficult and the extraverts are more concerned with what others say about them. The cronies, side-kicks and sycophants of the extraverts are there to heap praise on them whatever they say or do. If there are people who confront them with their lie and embarrass them, they will be conveniently categorized as belonging to the `enemy party’ and drowned with more lies. These people will never change if they have people who support them in their lie. Politicians therefore are some of the most adept liars and practitioners of systematic deceit and the most shameless among all the liars.
Self-awareness and a desire to change is the key to changing oneself. You know when you are disregarding information that contradicts your stand on any issue. As Socrates said “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Develop self-awareness which is the first step to change.
If there is a conflict between what you desire and what you consider right then consciously choose what is right. Learn to admit past mistakes, apologize for these and learn to move forward.
People who talk about morals speak about the ‘conscience’ or the inner voice which is nothing but the cognitive dissonance that we experience when our action does not match what we consider to be right.
Can Prayer Help?
Prayer is a form of self-conditioning or priming and is most effective in changing one’s behaviour. Belief in God helps but it should work even without such belief if the prayer is changed to a daily resolution or pledge.
This prayer (of the Prophet) has formed my daily morning prayer for most of my life:
O Allah! Purge my heart of hypocrisy,
My conduct from dissimulation,
My tongue from falsehood,
And my eyes from treachery,
For You indeed know the treacherous glance of the eyes
And that which the heart conceals.
You will notice that the Quran describes the laws of human behaviour but puts the same across as what God does. This is so since these are nothing but the unchanging laws of God which work inexorably in the most consistent and unchanging fashion. If you notice, even the laws of nature are described as if God is actively doing something for example, holding a bird in flight and preventing it from falling. People take this literally and say that if God is allowing people to go astray or sealing up their hearts, or causing them to be “deaf, dumb and blind”, how can they be blamed? This is again more of self-deception and inability to take responsibility for the moral choices they themselves make or for the path that they have chosen even though God constantly reminds them that:
(4:120) Satan makes them promises, and creates in them false desires; but Satan’s promises are nothing but deception.
(35:5) O men! Certainly the promise of Allah is true. Let not then this present life deceive you, nor let the Chief Deceiver deceive you about Allah. (6) Verily Satan is an enemy to you: so treat him as an enemy. He only invites his adherents that they may become Companions of the Blazing Fire.
If the response to this article is encouraging, it could become a series covering more aspects.