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Using Cognitive Dissonance as a Tool

Published 6/16/2021

Humans are driven to resolve cognitive dissonance as efficiently as possible. We pay little regard to whether our solutions are accurate or correct, but rather we only seek harmony in our minds. Unfortunately this can mean reinforcing unhealthy thought patterns and incorrect beliefs. However, cognitive dissonance can be turned around and used towards positive gains.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
We crave consistency. You crave consistency and you can use this to your advantage and you can see how this is tricking you if you look at your behaviors through the right lens. We're going to talk about that lens in today's episode. My name is Jonathan Cutrell. We're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on this show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective and purpose in their careers. When you believe one thing and you encounter something that goes against whatever it is you believe. Whether that thing is some other person that's providing you their differing opinion or if you're encountering direct evidence that seems to refute whatever it is that you believe that you make an assertion, you encounter evidence that somehow falsifies your assertion or at least discounts it to some degree. This is a very hard experience for humans. Now, it may not feel hard in the moment but what I mean by hard in this case is that it's hard to accept those experiences for what they are. It's hard to accept the idea that another person could be correct which would make us wrong. That's hard for humans to do. It's also hard for humans to just accept the idea that they were wrong on their own. There was another person that came along to let them know they were wrong. They encounter new evidence and they reckon with the idea that they were wrong. In fact, this is so hard that sometimes we forget, we've talked about this on the show before, sometimes we forget what our previous beliefs were. I can almost guarantee you if you look back ten years or so, especially if you're 20 or 30 years old, if you look back ten years, it's very likely that something that you believed ten years ago, you reject now. Something that you stood by, whether that was something that was taste-oriented, something that was subjective in nature, then your tastes have morphed over time, or something more substantially concrete. These are the harder things in some ways to come to terms with. Even if you were to look back at that time, it's very hard to figure out when exactly what was the moment that you encountered that differing information. In some ways, we have these coping mechanisms, ways of tricking us into believing that things were consistent all along. And if we did change, we changed it exactly the right time. This idea is sometimes referred to as cognitive dissonance. Some people might take issue with that label, sometimes cognitive dissonance is used for a different set of dissonance, where you have two competing images, where one is making you think something is true and another is making you think a different thing is true. Your brain is trying to combine those two truths. This is where we get illusions from. There's some dissonance there. The important thing to recognize about cognitive dissonance is that we tend to find quick and efficient ways of resolving that dissonance. Now notice I didn't say accurate. We don't always resolve the dissonance through accurate means. Sometimes we choose to retain our existing bad incorrect wrong belief. Sometimes we choose to ignore the dissonance itself to act like the competing image, the competing information is not even existing sometimes or at the very least is wrong. It's untrustworthy. One example that you've probably experienced of this kind of resolution process of cognitive dissonance is post rationalization. In other words, looking back and justifying or otherwise explaining away a decision that doesn't necessarily have a strong basis in fact for why it was a good decision. This often happens when two options are very close in terms of their utility or in terms of their desirability. Two options may be more than two options. And a person chooses one of the options and then post rationalizes why that option was better. They might even start that rationalization process in order to make the decision. By the way, this is one of the reasons why product marketing, especially packaging for example in a grocery store, is so important. Given two equal options, choosing the one that proposes a slight health benefit over another seems like a no-brainer. It gives you an easy out, an easy way to resolve what is otherwise cognitively dissonant. Now this may not seem like a big deal when we're talking about choosing one cereal over another, but it can be a big deal when you're talking about how a hiring committee works. Using candidates and using this post rationalization, not having a solid framework in place to determine who is a better candidate and therefore building a situation where a lot of cognitive dissonance is forced to be resolved. Now a huge problem with our resolution of cognitive dissonance is that because it is uncomfortable because it's kind of a stressful state for humans to be in, we're not very likely to process that dissonance in a systematic way. We're not likely to employ a decision-making strategy if we don't think about that in upfront. If we don't imagine the dissonance being sorted through, being managed by that particular strategy. There's obvious downsides to cognitive dissonance and the resolution of cognitive dissonance. Hopefully that much is clear, but what may not necessarily stick out right away in this conversation is that you can use cognitive dissonance to your advantage. You can use it as a tool and not just to push other people into doing things, but to create scenarios for yourself that are advantageous. We're going to talk about that. Right after we talk about today's sponsor, Remote Works. This episode of Developer Tea is sponsored by Remote Works, a podcast that tells extraordinary stories of teams that made the shift to flexible working. The way we work has changed forever. This isn't just a cliche and it's not just because of the pandemic. In each episode of Remote Works, host Melanie Green tells an insightful story about how people and companies are adapting. In this season of Remote Works, stories that are related to the pandemic, for example, are 2.5 million American women left the workforce or they lost their jobs during the pandemic. You'll hear how they plan to get those jobs back. We'll also look at the ways that companies are innovating to address environmental responsibility in a post-pandemic world. And my favorite episode so far still is about your desk, these little details rather than the macro picture we're looking at the micro picture in this episode. What does your desk say about you? Do you have a messy desk? And do you feel guilty about that? Well, hopefully this episode will make you feel a little less guilty. Season 3 of Remote Works is out now. Go and check it out. Wherever you listen to podcasts will include a link in the show notes, thanks to Remote Works for their support of Developer Tea. The continent of dissonance creates a stressful environment. But, stress is not always bad. In fact, we use stress as humans all the time. We learn how to grow from stress. We also use stress in order to create incentives. You can think about stress as a detractor, something that makes something a little bit more difficult. One example of stress might be putting the candy at the top of your pantry. This is something that we practice in my house. By putting the candy at the top of the pantry, you have to undergo a little bit of extra physical work, which is a type of stress, to get a piece. Now, that added stress might mean that I'm going to get less candy. As it turns out, this is absolutely true. If something is more convenient, then you're more likely to access it. So, this very basic concept of creating an economic disincentive. This is a strong concept for behavior change, for yourself and for others. So if you want to create behavior change, creating this idea of cognitive dissonance in order to avoid certain behaviors and encourage different behaviors is a good idea. There's been some interesting related research in what causes people to adhere to their commitments and adhere to particular habits that they care about. One of the most important findings is that when we describe ourselves as a physically active person, I am physically active. It's more likely that people who describe themselves that way will stick with their habits. Then if they just said, I exercise regularly. Notice the subtle difference here. It's not a longer sentence. There's not really much different information that you can gather from this. But by casting the identity into the picture, in other words, part of what I identify myself as is a physically active person. Now, changing your identity is much harder than changing your activity. Think about that for a second. If I just said, I exercise regularly. I very often exercise. Well, it's easy for me to stop exercising because all I have to do is change that to, I don't exercise very often. It's not a lot that has changed about me, my identity, through those two framings. But if I said, I am a physically active person and then I started being a sedentary person, this is a shift. It might seem subtle, but this has a profound effect. Part of the reason that this effect exists is because of the cognitive dissonance between what we see ourselves as, and our identity, what we've attributed to ourselves, what we've kind of adopted as our values and our actions. If we create some kind of commitment, then kind of lays out what our values are, or lays out what we're planning to do. If we have this, especially if it's visible or if we have some kind of reminder of this kind of commitment, then it's much more likely that we can create this positive cognitive dissonance that helps us avoid behaviors that would go against those values. When I describe myself to my coworkers as a long-term thinker, it creates cognitive dissonance for me when I try to take shortcuts or do something that's optimized for the short term. In order to resolve that cognitive dissonance, I have to go through the process of making an argument that goes against this value set that I've attributed to, once again, back to my identity. Understanding, we're going to talk kind of at a meta level now, understanding that cognitive dissonance causes bad things to happen, is it's important to understand that and separate that idea from labeling cognitive dissonance as a bad attribute of humans. Cognitive dissonance is simply an attribute of humans. It's not necessarily good or bad. What we do with it and how we respond to it, how we use it is up to us. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. A huge thank you to today's sponsor Remote Works. You can find Remote Works, season three in whatever podcasting app you use. Speaking of podcasting apps, if you haven't subscribed to this podcast, whatever you're listening to right now, go ahead and subscribe. We do three episodes a week. It's easy to fall behind. If you don't want to miss out on future episodes like this one, subscribing is the best way to make sure that doesn't happen. If you would like to join the Developer Tea Discord community, you can start to develop these positive cognitive dissonance kind of stakes in the ground with that community. Don't check it out at www.divvalkert.com slash Discord. I'm sure that people would love to exchange these ideas with you in that community. Thanks so much for listening. And until next time, enjoy your tea.