Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance and Narrative Troglodytes

So, this is a theory that I've been thinking about for a long time and I decided I may as well put this up for a first entry.

For those who know about Cognitive Dissonance, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. If you don't know what it is, I'll put it very simply. You're more likely to like somebody if you help them rather than if they help you. Following this pattern: if you act unfriendly to someone, you're more likely to dislike them. A little bit counter-intuitive, but nonetheless supported by a great deal of scientific data. The best explanation as to why this happens is that people feel the need to have a consistent narrative of their actions--if certain occurrences don't fit into that narrative, or run completely counter to it, then you're going to have to use up more mental energy to keep multiple narratives running in your head. Considering that both intuition (which constitutes, I'd venture... 95% of our thinking) and memory are associative phenomenon, that means that you expend a lot of mental energy holding unassociated and seemingly contradictory ideas.

But that explanation (or just-so story, you decide) isn't the point of this entry. Just to show how general the idea behind cognitive dissonance is, I'd like to talk about a related phenomenon. The face has some dozens of muscles that can be either active or at rest. All of our facial expressions are created by activating combinations of these muscles. But by moving any one of these muscles, we send a special electric/chemical impulse that causes us to feel what we're communicating with that muscle. That is, if I make an angry face, then I will feel angrier. If I smile more, I'll feel more jovial.

For yet one more example, think about how hard it is for people to lie. People fidget, sometimes break out into laughter (although I used to get nervous when telling a story when I was little and my sister would accuse me of lying, which would of course make me smile or laugh more), our palms will get sweaty, which is why polygraphs can (admittedly unreliably) detect lies. Taken together together, there seems to be a general pattern here that escapes our everyday intuitions: that what we show on the outside is not simply a manifestation of how we feel but that in fact the connection between our feelings and our actions goes both ways.

This isn't very shocking on its own; I think most of us understand what I said to some degree. But I think that the implications of this idea have not been thought through. Consider, for starters, why we would evolve in such a way that it's hard to lie or to operate independently of what our own actions may infer; after all, if we know everything that's going on in our own heads, shouldn't we not try to make inferences about our own actions? I know that the question is more complicated than simply that (and I'll get to that in a moment), but consider the utility to a band of hunter-gatherers of nobody in the group having an easy time lying.

In fact, take it one step further and consider what cognitive dissonance (and everything related) does for us. It gives both our actions and our thoughts narrative continuity. I've preferred chocolate to vanilla my entire life; I may order vanilla whimsically once in a while, but I know that I generally prefer chocolate ice cream. It would be very hard for me to know what ice cream to stock the house with if several times a day, based on my temperament and not on past actions, despised the flavor of ice cream I liked two hours ago and loved a flavor that I was lukewarm about.

Of course, that's a mere nuisance compared to what it could do with myself and people. What if I suddenly, for no reason, despised my best friend while we were hanging out and then the next day I was fine with him again? I may have reasons in my own head for it, but if there was no precedent in my actions, then to other people it will look completely random; both initially despising him out of left field and suddenly being cool with him the next day. Most of our understanding of the world is based on narratives; we use narratives to make predictions (which would explain why we don't do so well at prediction in a more interdependent modern world) and we rely on predictions to know whether we can hang out with a friend the next day or trust our neighbor to feed the cats. Therefore, cognitive dissonance assures that most changes will happen gradually; a friend of mine might suddenly have an outburst and storm off once in a while, but I can be pretty sure that that friend is not going to have a change of morality overnight and sell my kidneys on the black market.

So cognitive dissonance is a social mechanism that helps the survival of groups of people. Evolutionarily, this seems in line with the fact that our closest relatives are more social than our more distant relatives. This also leads me to believe that Rousseau had it entirely wrong when he said that humans were meant to be solitary creatures; solitary schmolitary, we're open books!

We're not just social creatures, however; we're also narrative creatures (however much those two concepts are independent, but I'll leave that to another essay.) For those who don't live entirely under a rock, you know as well as I do that people love reading and telling stories. You also know from high school English class that people also love interpreting stories. This instinct, to me, seems to be reflective of the inferences that we make about other individuals as well as groups of people. We fit our own actions into a story that other people can read and by extension we all participate in a collective narrative.

And narrative is in fact the operative word here. Narrative interpretation has much more to do with associations between ideas than deductive logic. The brain itself works primarily by finding patterns through association, also known as intuition. Deductive logic, by contrast, is a trick that we seemed to formally coin in the classical era and is still used in small doses. The basis for our interactions with other people (and perhaps even our conception of the self) is one based on being able to infer patterns and construct a narrative. Without the narrative continuity of cognitive dissonance, people would be black boxes from which we could only stand to learn about them by deductively testing rigid hypotheses, since there would be too many significant hidden variables for us to know how somebody is going to behave (social conventions also matter in this regard, but they themselves come from the same concept of a shared narrative, which I'll once again have to save for another essay.) So instead of telling you to wear a condom when you go on a date, your parents could remind you to bring your notepad, your data tables and your TI-86 Scientific Calculator. Sounds perfect to me.

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Also, if you extend the logic of this post, you can forget the "enlightened" political theorists Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Shmocke, Crocke. It seems to me that only Edmund Burke was on target about societal behavior.

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