In the last article, I talked about how the brain has evolved for survival rather than accuracy. Now we'll look at some specific biases or shortcomings of the way the mind interprets our inner and outer experience.
So what should we do in order to combat the sometimes nefarious results of cognitive dissonance?
The first step is to be aware of the phenomenon and to watch for times when we fall victim to cognitive dissonance. The best way to understand something is to become a student of it. We have to train ourselves to see something before we can manage it. This analysis can lead to a period of self-doubt and slight paralysis--we can become temporarily Hamlet-like in out questioning of ourselves--but that period ends as we learn to resolve the inner conflicts in a healthy and conscious way.
The second step is to get into the habit of challenging our assumptions. Scientists call this "falsification," trying to disprove our hypothesis rather than simply trying to prove it to be true. We don't want to do this all the time and begin questioning our every decision or action, but we should do it for the important ones. The more important a decision is, the more rigorous we should be about challenging the assumptions that lead us to it.
The third step is to seek and be receptive to feedback. The tricky part about cognitive dissonance is that we often can't see it. Others can help us see our own blind spots and contradictions. Develop a personal advisory board of people who will give you honest feedback and help you challenge your assumptions. Be sure you don't shoot the messenger when you solicit such feedback. Listen, keep an open mind, and change your mind when it is the right thing to do.
Finally, grow comfortable with saying "I was wrong." I would argue with Fitzgerald and say that the sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to say "I was wrong." Rather than being a sign of weakness, it shows that we are receptive to new information and not stuck in our thinking for psychological or dogmatic reasons. The economist John Maynard Keynes was once accused of hypocrisy for contradicting an earlier statement. He retorted, "When the evidence changes I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"
We should all seek to overcome the negative effects of cognitive dissonance and examine our contradictions. We should resolve those contradictions when we can. We should embrace them when we must (it is okay to eat sweets within moderation as long as we make efforts to be healthy, for example). And we should get into the habit of asking ourselves Keynes's question.
Stay tuned.... Future posts will cover more traps of the mind.