Cognitive dissonance

For over 60 years, social psychologists have been trying to figure out the distinctly human ability to rationalize irrational behavior. Why would a human being say it is okay to die unexpectedly, as long as the victim lived life to the fullest? Is it really OK to die before your time?

This self-delusion, the result of what’s called cognitive dissonance -- the clashing of conflicting thoughts -- has been demonstrated over and over by researchers who have come up with increasingly complex explanations. Psychologists have suggested we hone our skills of rationalization in order to impress others, reaffirm our moral integrity, protect our self-concept and feelings of self-worth.

Cognitive dissonance, is a term coined by the social psychologist Leon Festinger. In 1956 one of his students, Jack Brehm, brought some items into the lab and asked people to rate the desirability of objects such as an electric sandwich press, a desk lamp, a stopwatch and a transistor radio. Then they were given a choice between two items they considered equally attractive, and told they could take one home. After making a choice, they were asked to rate all the items again. Suddenly they had a new perspective. If they had chosen the electric sandwich press over the radio, they raised its rating and downgraded the radio. They convinced themselves they had made by far the right choice.

In general, people deal with cognitive dissonance by eliminating one of the thoughts. The notion that the radio is desirable conflicts with the knowledge that you just passed it up, so you banish the notion. The cognitive dissonance is gone; you are smug once again. When you see others engaging in this sort of rationalization, it can look silly or pathological, as if they have a desperate need to justify themselves or are cynically telling lies they couldn’t possibly believe themselves.

Cognitive dissonance becomes manifest with people who make poor decisions, and then defend those poor decisions against all logic and reason. Any disinterested observer of the current national debate on the United States' budget deficit and the recent credit rating downgrade of America's debt, can easily pick out examples from both sides of the debate.

So, in case this blog has been a little too obtuse and unclear on the message, let me clarify. It really is NOT OK to die young just because you lived life to the fullest. It is really not OK to grossly mischaracterize the current situation in the United States so you can remove your inner conflicts about making bad decisions as an inexperienced president who cannot lead the country. It is all just rationalization.


quillpena Aug. 8, 2011 @ 4:10 p.m.

Whether a person has lived his life to the fullest or not, his death is a desision that's rarely left up to the individual in question. Death will come for all of us, and our ages are just arbitrary numbers. I'm not an absolute fatalist, but I do believe some things are meant to be; if a person chooses suicide, admittedly a sad and unfortunate act, but who's to say, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't supposed to happen? Life is very complex and death, even more so. What truly happens to us in the afterlife (if one exists) is probably so beyond our concepts of reality that I douby if we could grasp it even if given the opportunity to learn the secret journeys of our souls. In the abstract totality of everything, I admit, I don't know much, but, regarding the complexity of life, death, and ultimately what it all means, neither does anyone else.


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