I’m told that when you compare the sheer sophistication of the human brain to the architecture of a supercomputer, even the most advanced silicone calculating machine has nothing on the strange and wonderful mechanisms that contain the mind. Frankly, I think the comparison is about as relevant as contrasting a dachshund with a shop vac, but what do I know?
I got a lot of meaningful lessons in human motivation throughout my deeply messed-up childhood, but one of the clearest lessons I learned was in a martial arts seminar on the subject of chin na, a style of kung fu that involves catching and locking joints and muscles. You use pain, rather than contests of muscular strength, to convince your opponent to assume disadvantageous positions. As fascinating (and effective) as the techniques were, it was something the master running the clinic said that resonated with me the most: people will always gravitate away from pain and towards pleasure.
Years later, as I first studied Leon Festinger’s seminal work on cognitive dissonance, a number concepts came into focus. Among these are several of my core philosophies, including hedonism, and philosophical/zen buddhism, and utilitarianism.
Note: I’ve decided to write these sections with minimal reference to sources other than my internalized understanding of the subject. I’m sure I’ll get plenty of it wrong, but that’s okay.
Before I get into cognitive dissonance, it’s important that you understand the terms “dissonance” and it’s opposite, “consonance.” According to the most accessible dictionary I have on hand (the one built into El Capitan) dissonance can be defined as “a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements,” whereas consonance is defined as, “agreement or compatibility between opinions or actions.” In other words, dissonance is when two or more things contradict one another, whereas consonance is when two elements complement one another.
The theory of cognitive dissonance states that the condition in which the mind attempts to hold two contradictory beliefs is painful, and that the mind has little choice but to resolve this condition. We do this in one of two primary ways:
- Resolution — the abandonment of one of the contradictory beliefs.
- Rationalization — the justification of action regardless of the acknowledgment that the two beliefs are contradictory.
The first solution is almost always the healthiest, and the second is one of the biggest roots of the evil man creates. Allow me to elaborate via the following illustrations, for which I’ll use two examples of cognitive dissonance that I would like to believe everyone can agree on: smoking and racism.
Resolution is the most natural response to cognitive dissonance, as it marks the shifting on one belief to another. If we take smoking as an example, it’s safe to say that, in general, smoking cigarettes is a bad thing. It has dire consequences on your own health, and the smoke itself can harm those around you while making you smell awful.
Smoking, however, is a habit usually acquired in youth, before the rational mind has developed. As a result the addiction is a powerful one and is both physically and psychologically difficult to break. Those who smoke spend many years dealing with both the reality that smoking is bad for you and the desire to smoke, thrusting them in a state of agonizing cognitive dissonance. Today, most (or, at least, many) smokers eventually strive to resolve this cognitive dissonance by quitting. Boo—done. Cognitive dissonance resolved.
One further thing about resolution and smoking. It’s entirely possible for the smoker to resolve their cognitive dissonance in a harmful way. Rather than discard the act of smoking, the smoker can discard the idea that smoking is bad for you. They’ll choose, instead, to subscribe to one of the discredited ideas such as free radicals or anecdotal evidence of people smoking like chimneys and still living to old age as proof that smoking isn’t bad for you. They’ll take up extremely healthy diets or get extra exercise just to prove the point. This all technically qualifies as resolution.
Racism shares a lot with smoking, only most racist beliefs are, like religion, installed by parental/cultural norms. While there’s an element of this form of cognitive dissonance that is similar to smoking, I’ve chosen to focus on a different set of seemingly contradictory beliefs surrounding racism:
- Otherness — people of other races (generally) live under a unique set of conditions (class, environment, etc) and come from cultures that hold different standards of behavior from your own.
- Sameness — people of other races are real human beings legitimately entitled to the same basic rights that you enjoy.
In this case, discarding one or the other of these two beliefs would lead to one or another negative outcome. Should the racist discard the latter belief, he or she will continue to act as all racists do and regard people of other races as second-class citizens at best, or subhuman at worst.
Conversely, should the racist discard the former belief (a far better negative outcome), he or she is likely to become entirely racially insensitive. There may be a time (in fact, I hope there will be) when the former possibility is closer to the ideal, but in 2017, one who acts this way is likely to further his or her latent racism by merely assuming that those of other races fail because they don’t try hard enough or squander.
It’s hard to believe that the term “rationalization” as we understand it today (as a psychological term, rather than a rhetorical one) stems from Festinger’s theory because it’s so obvious. Rather than discard the harmful contradiction, the rationalizer accepts the dichotomy but chooses to continue to act the same way.
The general rationalization goes something like this: yes, smoking is bad for my physical health, but the pleasure and benefits I gain from smoking more than balance out the increased risk of cancer and heart disease, as well as the immediate respiratory and immune-system problems. In the case of people with sever bipolar disorder, PTSD, Tourette’s syndrome, and more serious addictions (e.g., alcoholism), this may, in fact, be legitimate.
Where rationalization can be beneficial is when it leads to a new way of looking at a perceived (not true) contradiction of beliefs. Racism is a great example of this. When the racist begins to realize that that both of the seemingly contradictory beliefs outlined above (otherness and sameness) are not mutually exclusive, he or she begins creating a third belief by rationalizing the two previous options.
For racists, the rationalization looks something like this: it’s true that people of other races are both different from me and the same. Their culture and circumstances make it hard for me to understand their motivations, but their behavior has legitimate roots, even if I can’t see them. When separated from their cultural background, such as those adopted by parents of my race, these people act the same way I do, which demonstrates that they are just as human as I am. Therefore, there is not inherent reason to assume that members of other races are inherently inferior to myself.
The above rationalization isn’t a perfect one, but it’s an important stepping stone. This example actually highlights one of the central controversies of the civil rights movement, when white people tried to separate black culture from the race itself and began ascribing all cultural differences to matters of class (economics) rather than social structures. There is some truth to this, but like many other convictions based on half truths (e.g., libertarianism), the half truths can lead to extremely harmful conclusions.
Insidious Cognitive Dissonance & Dangerous Knowledge
…or Why I Became a Vegan
One of the areas where cognitive dissonance plays an aggressive role in our lives is when we don’t see it coming. The subject of “dangerous knowledge” deserves its own entry, but I’ll summarise the idea here and how it’s affected me in a major way. Dangerous knowledge is knowledge that causes you to realize that two beliefs you’ve held are actually in conflict, sending you into a state of acute cognitive dissonance.
I became a vegan as a result of my exposure to dangerous knowledge. I’d already become a vegetarian when I decided to change my diet and address a number of mental-health issues I’d been neglecting. I have rather severe bipolar disorder characterized by rapid cycling and manic insomnia, but it was an anxiety attack that became the turnaround point for me.
Among the many changes I decided to make, one of them was to identify and eliminate cognitive dissonance. After some soul searching and contemplation of ways to improve my (atrocious) diet, the decision to become a vegetarian was a total no-brainer.
As I became comfortable in my new diet, I began to consider the ethical reasons for my vegetarianism more. That is, it was easier to justify my decision to my friends (who’d known me as quite the carnivore) as health related at first. I even went so far as to say that I’d probably go back to eating meat when I’d lost some weight, but I think I knew I was lying. A few late-night conversations with close friends later, I’d verbally explored my ethical beliefs, and I knew there was no way I’d go full omnivore again.
Then it happened. I was actually reading something about utilitarianism and ecology when I first learned about factory farming. I thought that this was “safe” to read, because I’d already sworn off meat, so the horrors of meat production weren’t going to affect me. They didn’t really, but it was when I had to face the fact that milk and eggs come from processes that are equally as inhumane (considerably more so, in fact) as the meat-production processes that I had to admit that vegetarianism wasn’t enough to satisfy my ethics.
Let me make something clear: I did NOT want to go vegan. I warred internally on the subject for weeks, trying to rationalize my yogurt addiction and love of milk chocolate as not being that harmful et cetera, et cetera. I wasn’t buying any of it. I brought the subject up with my wife, and she was… how do I put this delicately… not amused. Not at all. There were a lot of alchemical concoctions of interrogatives and profanity involved, and the reaction was so bad that I spiraled into another abyss of severe cognitive dissonance resolution.
Ultimately, the choice was unavoidable: I had to go vegan. The very second I put my foot down on the subject (there were a lot of “yes dear”s involved), I felt a wave of relief more poignant than the sudden release of a migrane. It was a singular experience. There’s a funny corollary to this. The day before I decided to go vegan, I wrote a short post on the subject on Facebook. Here’s the post:
Uncomfortable Topics About Food
This grey, gray, rainy morning and binging on short essays by Peter Singer have inspired me to voice some philosophical topics I’ve been contemplating lately.
Axiom: Veganism as a concept, and not just “attack vegans,” makes non-vegans uncomfortable.
Speculation: this discomfort is a result most nonconformities have on uneducated people. It’s caused by cognitive dissonance in educated people, who are at least possibly familiar with the generally inhumane conditions animals are kept in.
Axiom: even well educated people often avoid pursuing knowledge on subjects because of a desire to avoid cognitive dissonance caused by feeing obliged to behave in a particular manner.
Observation: many generally kind and self-proclaimed “understanding” or “tolerant” people go beyond avoiding knowledge to actively dissuading others from pursuing it and ridiculing those who have.
I wonder how many people would change their responses to these questions if they knew whether or not I’m a vegan.
I find it curious that, although “vegan” is, “veganism” (which appears to be a standard term) isn’t in Apple’s dictionary.
Thoughts, comments, flaming disagreements (beware of providing evidence for the observation of my second axiom, folks)?
I felt like I raised some good, thought-provoking questions. According to the responses that I got…
- …it is apparently difficult to read past the first axiom without either becoming seriously offensive or seriously defensive.
- …no one—not one single person I know (who responded)—read that last sentence.
I appended this with the following:
Man—! I shouldn’t have been surprised by how fixated people became on the axiom in part one of this post and have treated me like an attack vegan, despite that I’m neither a vegan nor an “attack ______” about any of my values. I mean, I could be, if that made people feel better. Take your pick: vegetarianism, pit bulls, carbon emissions, education, atheism, alcohol—these are just some of the “hot button” topics I am highly opinionated about, yet my philosophy requires me to accept the validity of other people’s feelings to the point where I find that kind of disrespect truly appalling.
While this post led to a modicum of interesting discussion (some of which I’ll post in a future article about veganism), I was mostly just frustrated by the mostly inane responses. Oddly though, it help to settle the matter, and by the end of the day, I was a vegan. Reeling from the idea of dangerous knowledge, I [foolishly] penned a followup post a day or two later. Here’s how that one went:
Infectious Information and Dangerous Knowledge
Knowledge has always spread in a viral manner, but with social media, it’s a lot more like walking around with no skin on than possibly catching the occasional cold. Memes are the quintessential example of viral ideas, but there are other less-visible examples that have more profound effects than Doge.
Here are a few pieces of infectious information:
- Husky is a job description, not a breed.
“Husky” is a general name for a sled-type of dog used in northern regions, differentiated from other sled-dog types by their fast pulling style. Dogs such as the “Siberian Husky” actually belong to different breeds (e.g., spitz or malamute).
- “Reactionary” is not a synonym for “reactive.”
It means “a person or set of views opposing political or social liberalization or reform (i.e., politically conservative); it is not a synonym for “reactive.”
- Hummus is pronounced “hoo mus” not “hum mus.”
Also, buffet (as in the place where you eat way too much) is actually pronounced “boo fey” not “buf fey.”
[Edited to get rid of the oh-so controversial “Al mond” vs “Auh mond” argument that caused heads to explode.]
Infectious ideas are annoying—once you know them, you probably won’t forget them. They aren’t life changing or anything, but from the time you learn these things, they have a tendency to stand out. Now every time you hear someone misuse reactionary (and it happens all the time), at the very least, you’ll recognize the misuse, and at the worst, you’ll correct the speaker, which will be annoying and possibly infect them as well (assuming they don’t tell you to go to hell). Infectious ideas, however, are nothing compared to dangerous knowledge.
Okay, I’m using the term “dangerous knowledge” here to be patently overdramatic. By “dangerous” I mean threatening to your way of thinking to the point of either making you unhappy with your behavior or forcing you to change your behavior in manner that inconveniences you. For example, you discover that your favorite fast food joint is one of the leading donors to a major hate group. This revelation leaves you with four basic options:
- Ignore/dismiss the evidence and continue to eat there as though you never came across it.
- Decide you’re pretty much okay with this practice and continue to eat there.
- Continue to eat there but suffer some degree of guilt and self-loathing for doing so.
- Choose not to eat there anymore and possibly even tell others about their business practices.
What dangerous knowledge have you encountered and how did you respond? Please, be brutally honest, and try to keep commentary civil.
I don’t know what I expected, but what I got more or less shook my faith in humanity. Rather than even touch the subject of dangerous knowledge, I got a bunch of critical responses about huskies, humus, almonds, and other trite bullshit that had to do with the infectious information part of the post.
I was so frustrated about this that I decided to grab a cup of coffee with my dear friend Marshall and vent. As I vented, I warned him that I might hit him with some dangerous knowledge. He said it was okay, so I unleashed my thoughts. Two days later, he went vegetarian. Funny, that.
Anyway, that’s enough on the topic of cognitive dissonance… well, sort of. The rest of this article is predicated on this theory as the prime motivation of human behavior, but it focuses on how I, personally, internalize and deal with this concept via the ethical and philosophical principles I’ve adopted/accepted.
As I understand it, hedonism is really an expression of how one pursues cognitive consonance (i.e., ideas that complement one another). True hedonism is the deliberate pursuit of personal happiness. It’s often mistaken for gluttony, but gluttony is a purely short-term form of hedonism. Ultimately, the glutton is worse off for the gluttonous action (e.g., the binge drinker becomes an alcoholic, the binge eater winds up morbidly obese, the squander ends up in debt, etc).
True hedonism takes the long view. It asks the question, “What will make me the happiest and how can I pursue it?” To fulfill this pursuit, the hedonist accepts that he or she may have to experience some degree of discomfort along the way toward a goal that will ultimately provide the greatest happiness. For instance, the act of going back to collage to pursue a career that will ultimately make you happier typically includes the pain of juggling classes and work and taking out heavy student loans. This is still a hedonistic goal because it’s motivated by the desire to be happier.
So, I consider myself a hedonist. I actively pursue those things that will make me the happiest, while deliberately moving away from things that make me unhappy. At this point in my life, I’ve decided to pursue my passion of weird fiction by writing a series of short stories. My goal is happiness, not money, not fame, not anything more concrete. Writing this blog is a hedonistic pursuit. Being a hedonist is as simple as saying, “everything I do is for my own gratification.”
Sounds pretty selfish, doesn’t it? I suppose selfishness can be seen as hedonistic, but that doesn’t make hedonism the problem. The real problem there is selfishness. To the beneficent hedonist, seeing other people enjoy happiness is a source of personal happiness. While one could quip that the altruist who spends a lifetime helping the less fortunate is “selfish” because the act of charity itself promotes personal happiness.
Nonsense. This is case of sheer contradiction, as selfish ness itself is defined as “an act that expresses a lack of consideration for others, which is concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.” By definition (), charity cannot be selfishness. Thus the hedonistic pursuit of happiness by promoting happiness in others is a good thing, and one needn’t bother with silly rhetoric to prove otherwise. QED.
I often joke that I’m a bad buddhist, but I suspect that Siddartha Gautama and I would have gotten along just fine. Specifically, I subscribe to a form of Zen Buddhism, a philosophical iteration of Mahayana Buddhism. I will explore this is a later post, but for now, let me relate Buddhism (as I understand it) to the theory of cognitive dissonance and hedonism.
Arguably the central most concept in Buddhism isn’t nirvana, it’s dukkha. Dukkha can be defined simply as “the suffering and dissatisfaction of life itself.” Sounds pretty dour, doesn’t it? It is, but that doesn’t make it wrong. The argument surrounding Buddhism is that we are naturally dissatisfied with life and ruled by the fear of death, but everything we see and experience is a construct; not the true reality that binds all things together.
The pursuit of nirvana is the sate of letting go of one’s attachment to the construct (i.e., seeing the construct for what it is). This allows one to discard pain and reach a point of inner stillness, peace, and orientation on the Truth: nirvana or enlightenment. To Zen Buddhists, enlightenment is a state of wakefullness (pursued via the act of meditation), in which one sees the Truth and the construct at once and experiences a profound state of peace by living in the moment, rather than the past or the future. It is a supremely animalistic state, yet it’s predicated on one’s human cognitive faculties
Arguably, anyone can achieve enlightenment—it’s a wonderful feeling—but maintaining that state is far more difficult than achieving it in the first place. A true buddha is one who achieve enlightenment or wakefullness and can maintain it, seeing truth and the construct at once and experiencing a state of peace.
At this point, the connection between the pursuit of Buddhist enlightenment, hedonism, and cognitive consonance is pretty much self evident, and when you explore additional concepts such as The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path, what you really see is a system of living your life in such a way as to remove the cognitive dissonance that blocks your way toward enlightenment.
Utilitarianism (specifically, act utilitarianism) is such a complex subject that I won’t even try to go into any kind of depth here. Buddhism, as I practice it, requires at least a partially utilitarian mentality, as you evaluate your speech, actions, mentality, etc against whether or not it serves to lessen the pain in the world. This is, as I understand it, a point where the pursuit of happiness of hedonism (for the self) and utilitarianism (for everyone) overlap, which is why I find the concepts hopelessly entangled.
There’s also a certain amount of causationism involved in the Zen Buddhist philosophy I subscribe to (though my friend and ethicist, Nathan, swears that I’m not a true causationist myself). This stems from the understanding that you can’t know the true “goodness” or “badness” or an action, because you don’t/can’t understand all of the moving parts. The example argument that cemented this for me was a challenge to the axiom that slavery in the US was a bad thing. Let’s explore that.
First up, my gut reaction to this is, “Hell yes it was a bad thing. No one should ever have had to go through such awful, dehumanizing treatment, and the consequences—most notably the clumsy handling and disastrous results of Reconstruction—have been a blight on the history of Western Civilization.” Yeah, that’s my gut reaction, and I think that’s the way most thinking/caring/feeling people understand slavery.
Okay, but—as distasteful as it may be—let’s consider the inverse of the axiom: slavery in the US was a good thing. Here goes. During the slave trade, a lot of slaves ended up in the US rather than on the sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean, where they were quickly worked to death. In some ways, if slavery was going to be a thing, then it’s good that some slave could have ended up in the US.
Hmm… that’s a bit weak
Let’s try another angle: without slavery and Reconstruction, there never would have been the kind of inter-racial conflict to inspire the Civil Rights Movement, which has had long echoing beneficial repercussions for many other minorities than African-Americans. Also, we wouldn’t have the beauty and advancements in the arts that came from the Harlem Renaissance. Those are a bit more plausible.
Then there’s the final causationist argument, which is that there may be additional beneficial results of slavery in the US that we can’t yet predict—various social progressions or artistic movement and other advancements that all stem from the emotional powder keg of American slavery. We just don’t know. So, while my emotional response is that slavery in the US was a terrible, terrible thing, I also acknowledge that my ability to see all of the possible threads connected to this atrocity is too limited to know the whole truth.
Really, there are no conclusions to this entry. What all of these thoughts amount to is a wellspring of more concepts I need to explore. Like I wrote in the beginning of this, each of the concepts I touched on here: cognitive dissonance, veganism, hedonism, Buddhism, and utilitarianism deserve a lot of additional contemplation. I look forward to pouring out my thoughts on these subjects in the future.