Carol Tavris on the Pain of Dissonance

If storytelling can be a force for evil, social psychologist Carol Tavris explains that it’s not just stories we tell others, but the ones we tell ourselves. Almost as uncomfortable as hunger itself is dissonance, that feeling when ideas contradict things we believe, or need, to be true.

All of us are susceptible to bias, yes, even skeptics. Tavris points out that skeptics in fact are very prone to “the bias that we are unbiased,” the idea that if someone doesn’t agree with our position on something, which of course we arrived at through 100% pure critical thinking, must mean that they are biased.

What hit home for me was the kind of bias that occurs once we’ve made some kind of decision with ethical or moral baggage. Tavris’s example was a student who needed to cheat in order to get a good grade in class. The student who decides not to cheat begins by reducing dissonance by reinforcing the idea to themselves that cheating is immoral and hurts everyone in the class. That snowballs over time into a zealous anti-cheating position, that it’s morally abysmal.

On the other side, the student who does cheat justifies it by telling themselves that it’s no big deal, and cheating isn’t the end of the world. But the cognitive practice, using all this brain power to reduce the dissonance of having cheated, causes this person to harden this belief to the point that cheating is a total non-issue, and justified in myriad circumstances.

In other words, in the act of reducing that uncomfortable dissonance, we get better at it. Practice makes perfect. As Tavris put it, we take “the path to the bottom where certainty lies.”

Tavris raised the example of those extreme gun enthusiasts who have convinced themselves and each other that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax to justify the confiscation of all firearms. That belief reduces the dissonance they feel between their love of guns and the horror of those gun murders. Trying to convince them otherwise only pushes them further down the path to certainty.

But just as we need to eat to satisfy hunger, we can’t reasonably live in the world constantly writhing under the stress of dissonance. We have to embrace certainty on most of the aspects of our day to day lives, like being certain that brushing our teeth is a good idea.

The takeaway is to remember to check our own biases, to know that we are not failures or traitors to ourselves if we admit error or the truth of an opposing argument. If anything, we’d be better for it. But we have to power through the dissonance. No pain, no gain.