The challenge with three solutions

There is a trend in amateur philosophical arguments, a disturbing trend and it goes something like this:

X: ‘I believe that this is true’

Y: ‘Your belief appears to be contradictory to physical evidence’

X: ‘At first glance you are right, but I have previously considered this and that then it does not appear contradictory’

Y: ‘You are suffering cognitive dissonance”

Readers right now are probably jumping up and down wanting to discuss the belief that X has, but that is something for later on, rather let us focus on that final statement ‘cognitive dissonance’.

A quick Google search will come up with this:

Google is your friend… except when you use it wrongly. Friends do not use each other wrongly

It therefore seems at first glance person Y is absolutely correct in his statement, and X does suffer from cognitive dissonance. However any intelligent internet user (does such a thing exist?) knows that taking the first few things you see is not the best way to do an internet search. Any person fluent in language also knows that dictionaries are notorious for over simplifying a topic. So let us bee intelligent and scroll down the search list a bit to better understand this topic.

Please go click on these sites… I did.

Skim over those results and even before pressing the links it is obvious what the flaw is… go and read it yourself again if you did not notice it.


Perhaps you noticed the term “discomfort”?

See there is more to cognitive dissonance than just holding two conflicting beliefs, in fact if you do your research cognitive dissonance is not a permanent state, it is only a temporary state one experiences when confronted by differing beliefs. I can explain with a small story of myself experiencing cognitive dissonance.

I am the type of person that like a messy desk, I do not say “untidy”, rather it is “messy”. Everything is ordered and arranged in the way I like it, however to another person it may appear a mess. This is not usually a problem as no one else shares my work space. One day, however I was unable to teach due to illness and so my department head took my class. My department head is a very organised person and likes to have everything arranged ‘just so’. She found my desk extremely stressful and was such that she felt she had to do something to fix it. So she cleaned up my desk and arranged everything in neat piles that were ordered appropriately.

This is my desk when it is not messy.

The next day I arrived to work to find my desk not as I left it. I quickly surmised what had occurred and who had done it, at which point I suffered cognitive dissonance. On one hand I had a value that everything should be in the place I put it (something my wife has over the years learned to work around in imaginative ways), but on the other hand I had a value that someone had voluntarily cleaned my room for the right reasons. I could understand the reason it had been cleaned, but hated that it had been cleaned at the same time. I therefore felt great mental discomfort. This discomfort lasted about half an hour, but eventually I arrived at a compromise.

I determined that the room would eventually return to the state I like it, but in the meantime I can be glad that I had been given the opportunity to start fresh. It was not my favourite compromise, but it was the most productive compromise. Getting angry and telling people not to touch my stuff is not the most mature attitude in the world, especially as I can emphasise enough to realise my mess does challenge others. I still hold such values, but now I have a compromise. That compromise reduces discomfort not just in that event, but also in future events if it happens again (and yes, it happened again, albeit to a lesser extent). I therefore suffered cognitive dissonance, but no longer suffer it.

Let me elaborate on the issue. Cognitive dissonance does not mean that you have conflicting beliefs or values, what it means is that you are conflicted about them. This only occurs at the initial introduction of the conflict as the person will then adjust their thinking to do one of three things.

  1. Ignore or reduce the importance of the new information.
  2. Ignore or reduce the importance of the old information.
  3. Introduce new concepts to justify the contradiction.

Here is another example:

The game Pokemon GO, a location based application to catch fictional monsters, was released recently and many players chose to use third party software to find the monsters without walking around. This is defined by the game’s developers as ‘cheating’. This then raises an issue of cognitive dissonance in many players. They want to play the game with other software but they do not want to cheat. They feel discomfort. Some of them only feel this discomfort for a second, others it might be longer, but they feel the conflict anyway… and they have to solve it. They solved it in the three ways:

  1. They did not cheat or use the software. This might mean they looked at the software initially, identified a conflict, then decided it was not worth it for some reason.
  2. They don’t care if they cheat. These people are the type of people that when the issue is raised just ignore the conversation or change topics.
  3. They develop a reason based upon other information that justifies this use, such as “the developers put a similar feature in the original game but it doesn’t work, I have to use other software until they fix it”.

I am not going to go into the right or wrong of this (I was type 1 by the way), but either way they all solved cognitive dissonance, as in, the discomfort of contradictory values, by  coming up with one of the three solutions. After developing one of the solutions they no longer had cognitive dissonance…

Let that drill in a bit.

After solving cognitive dissonance you no longer have it.

And this is where we can go back to the original X and Y conversation and what beliefs this idea of cognitive dissonance is used to incorrectly refute. Religion.

Cognitive dissonance has become the buzz phrase some (not all, thank goodness) people use against religious beliefs, particularly those that relate to creation and science. However it does not work unless you introduce a new idea. In the conversation above there are no new ideas, here, read it again:

X: ‘I believe that this is true’

Y: ‘Your belief appears to be contradictory to physical evidence’

X: ‘At first glance you are right, but I have previously considered this and that then it does not appear contradictory’

Y: ‘You are suffering cognitive dissonance’

Person X has obviously thought about the issue before and come up with a solution in his mind, in this case either X is ignoring physical evidence, or has found a logical way to meld the two. Therefore cognitive dissonance is not relevant to person X, in fact it would appear that the reasoning that X has is new to Y and Y is the one that is suffering cognitive dissonance… which they solve by quickly ignoring the new information from X.

Let me make it clear though, this does not mean X is correct in their beliefs, only that they are not suffering cognitive dissonance, in fact X seems to be suffering no discomfort at all. It is Y that is suffering cognitive dissonance in this conversation.

And here is the crux of the issue:

There is nothing wrong with cognitive dissonance.

As a person gets older they are constantly coming in contact with new ideas that may conflict with their old ones. Perhaps their teacher disagrees with their mother, or their spouse commits adultery, or someone comes up with reasons why steady state theory trumps big bang theory. All of these make us question what we already know and challenges us to rethink our understanding of the world, cognitive dissonance is in fact the back bone of scientific progress, and an important challenge in how we deal with relationships. It even is something theologians deal with when faced with evidence conflicting with religious texts. But in every situation humans strain to solve the problem quickly and efficiently to reduce discomfort.

Cognitive dissonance is not an insult to be thrown about when someone does not make sense to you, rather it is something to embrace and study in order to come to a viable reason not to come in and yell at someone for cleaning your desk.