Making Sense of Cognitive Dissonance and Confirmation Bias

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you believe one thing, but your actions or other beliefs contradict it? Maybe you’ve experienced the internal tug-of-war between wanting to eat that delicious slice of cake and knowing you should stick to your diet. Or perhaps you’ve witnessed people fervently defending their beliefs despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Welcome to the intriguing world of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias.

Rooted in classic psychology, cognitive dissonance, as Festinger described in his seminal 1957 book, is like that uncomfortable feeling when you’re trying to juggle two conflicting ideas in your mind. It’s as if your brain is saying, “Wait, hold on a second, these two things don’t match up!” And just like being thirsty or hungry, your brain seeks to remedy this discomfort.

But why does this discomfort arise in the first place? When information clashes with our self-concept, it’s like a direct hit to our core beliefs and values. It challenges the very essence of who we think we are. Imagine making a mistake in something you’re usually good at. You’re faced with a choice: admit the mistake and risk shattering your self-image, or deny the evidence altogether.

Here’s where cognitive dissonance kicks in. Instead of facing the uncomfortable truth, we often ignore or overlook evidence that contradicts our beliefs. It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole—sometimes, it just doesn’t work.

Let’s take smoking as an example. You might know deep down that smoking is bad for your health, but if you’re a smoker, admitting this fact can be a tough pill to swallow. So, what do you do? You might downplay the risks, justify your behaviour by saying, “I don’t smoke that much,” or find other ways to rationalise your actions.

But cognitive dissonance doesn’t stop there. Enter confirmation bias – the tendency to seek information confirming our beliefs while ignoring or dismissing evidence that contradicts them. It’s like having blinders on, only seeing what we want to see.

Think of confirmation bias as a filter through which we view the world. We cherry-pick information that aligns with our preconceived notions, conveniently ignoring anything that challenges them. Remember that cult from the 1950s that believed the world was ending? When the prophecy failed to materialise, they doubled down on their beliefs instead of admitting their mistake, actively seeking ways to rationalize the disconfirmation.

Take Away

So, what’s the takeaway from all this? Well, first and foremost, awareness is critical. Recognising when cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias are at play can help us approach situations more openly. It’s okay to admit when we’re wrong or when our beliefs are being challenged – it’s a sign of growth.

Secondly, embracing cognitive flexibility can go a long way. Instead of clinging stubbornly to our beliefs, we can learn to adapt and evolve as new evidence comes to light. After all, holding two conflicting ideas in our minds without experiencing discomfort is the hallmark of intellectual maturity.

In the end, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias may be hardwired into our brains, but they don’t have to dictate our actions. By being mindful of our thought patterns and staying open to new information, we can navigate the complex maze of human cognition with grace and humility. So, the next time you find yourself grappling with conflicting beliefs, remember: it’s all part of the wonderfully messy journey called life.

Recent Uncomfortable Classic Examples

Let’s dive into a real-world example that waves across the pond: Brexit. Remember the enthusiasm surrounding the Brexit referendum? It was a divisive issue that split the nation, with passionate arguments on both sides. Fast forward to today, and the United Kingdom grapples with the aftermath – a tangled web of political, economic, and social implications.

On one hand, some fervently believed that leaving the European Union was the right move for the UK. They saw it as an opportunity to reclaim sovereignty, regain control over immigration, and strike lucrative trade deals with other nations. These beliefs were deeply ingrained, tied to national identity and independence.

But as the dust settled and the realities of Brexit began to unfold, cognitive dissonance reared its head. Suddenly, the promises of a “sunlit upland” future seemed further out of reach than ever before. Economic forecasts painted a grim picture of job losses, supply chain disruptions, and dwindling foreign investment. The once-united front began to fracture as reality clashed with rhetoric.

Enter confirmation bias. Despite mounting evidence that Brexit was causing more harm than good, many staunch Brexit supporters doubled down on their beliefs. They sought information that painted a rosier picture, dismissing dissenting voices as “project fear” mongers or unpatriotic naysayers. It was easier to bury their heads in the sand than to confront the uncomfortable truth.

However, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias aren’t limited to grand political movements. They can manifest on a personal level, too. Take, for example, the case of Liz Truss, the former Prime Minister who championed Brexit and promised a bright future for the UK. In the wake of her tenure, marked by economic turmoil and political upheaval, Truss faces a dilemma.

Instead of acknowledging the failures of her leadership and the damage wrought by her policies, Truss chooses to see only the positives. She promotes her new book, touting her accomplishments and painting a rosy picture of her time in office. It’s a classic case of cognitive dissonance at play – faced with conflicting evidence; Truss opts to cherry-pick the facts that support her narrative while ignoring the rest.

So, what can we learn from the Brexit saga and the case of Liz Truss? It’s a sobering reminder of the power of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias in shaping our beliefs and behaviours. It’s easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm of ideology, to cling stubbornly to our convictions even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

But true wisdom lies in the ability to acknowledge our cognitive blind spots, embrace nuance and complexity, and approach life with humility and curiosity. As the UK navigates the choppy waters of post-Brexit reality, and as individuals like Liz Truss grapple with the consequences of their actions, let’s remember that growth and progress come from facing uncomfortable truths head-on, not from burying our heads in the sand.