How Cognitive Dissonance Runs Your Life! (pt 2C)
Our Memories, Our Creations
Have you ever heard a person on a diet blame someone else for a food that they ate? Or have you ever heard a person in a relationship blame their partner for having a bad night out? You hear their reasons and you’re like, yeah that makes sense. Why does it “make sense?”
I’m pretty sure that the person wasn’t forced at gunpoint to eat the food that they did. I’m also pretty sure that the man or woman over-reacted to something small, that someone from the outside looking in would see as insignificant.
It makes sense because most of us equate temptation with an automatic reaction. Why? Because we have memories of being tempted and giving into temptation. How do we explain that giving into temptation? Do we take responsibility for our actions? Rarely.
Most of the time, in order to reduce the dissonance that occurs from wanting to do one thing and ending up doing another, we blame it on the outside influence in order to keep up our confirmation bias that “we’re smart, logical and good people at heart.” (This is totally me with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups – “Why would you give that to me?!?”).
We use our memories to bypass any dissonant information and instead use it as a self-serving mechanism towards the attributes that we desire. We don’t want to describe ourselves as “weak-willed” or “emotional.” But we will describe others as, “having to always have sweets and tempting us with them,” or the other person as, “not making any sense.”
You see, our memories are not like a computer’s memory – where you go in and it pulls up a file. Instead, it’s closer to how the internet works. When you pull up a website, packets of information come through from various servers and the end result is a webpage. Memory acts in the same manner, pulling from various sources to come up with what you remember.
Your memory of your favorite childhood memory obviously comes from the instance itself. But it also comes from stories that you’ve also heard about the incident. It comes from those stories, the incident itself and then how you’ve interpreted those things into your individual story. What you end up with is a “memory.”
For example, if your favorite memory was a summer camping trip. What you remember is building a tent with your father and roasting marshmallows. Over the years though, your older brother remembers the story and tells you that he got “attacked” by mosquitoes on that same trip. After a couple of years, although you didn’t initially remember that happening to your brother, your story then becomes a story about building a tent with your father, roasting marshmallows and laughing at your brother for getting so many mosquito bites. After a couple more years, it becomes a story about building a tent, roasting marshmallows and laughing at your brother for getting so many mosquito bites while you got NONE.
This is how our memories form – much like our beliefs. Our memories form through stories of other people, what actually happened to us and how we interpret/filter those two concepts.
The messed up part is that sometimes the stories aren’t from the incidents from the event itself, but from something you read in a book around the same time. Or from a television show or movie you watched. The bottom line is that our memories aren’t always our own – and even if they are completely our own memories, we will typically forget a lot of dissonant information.
If on that trip, you built a tent, roasted marshmallows but also got a ton of mosquito bites also, you might “forget” about the mosquito bites. The author’s of Mistakes Were Made sum this up in two quotes:
“What we…refer to confidently as memory…is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.” ~ William Maxwell
“At the simplest level, memory smoothes out the wrinkles of dissonance by enabling the confirmation bias to hum along, selectively causing us to forget discrepant, disconfirming information about beliefs we hold dear…In reconstructing a memory, people draw on many sources.” (pg. 70 & 73)
All of this leads us back to my original example of the woman in a bad relationship.
Back to Relationships
In my original example, a woman was in a bad relationship. By now, it should be clear as to why she keeps going back to that “asshole.” But there’s a couple of other points to be made about this example that I haven’t talked about.
1 – The harder it is to obtain a certain voluntary end, the more we like that “end” object. Here’s another quote from Mistakes Were Made:
“Severe initiations increase a member’s liking for the group. These findings do not mean that people enjoy painful experiences, such as filling out their income-tax forms, or that people enjoy things because they are associated with pain. What they do show is that if a person voluntarily goes through a difficult or a painful experience in order to attain some goal or object, that goal or object becomes more attractive. If, on your way to join a discussion group, a flowerpot fell from the open window of an apartment building and hit you on the head, you would not like that discussion group any better. But if you volunteered to get hit on the head by a flowerpot to become a member of the group, you would definitely like the group more.”
In this relationship, the woman keeps going through a “severe initiation” voluntarily. This was all started by a small choice at the top of the pyramid of choice. After a couple more times of voluntarily choosing to stay in the relationship, the woman starts to back up her decisions with confirmation bias, “But he’s a really nice guy.”
Her reasons are further embedded by altering her memories – “Remember the time that he made me that romantic dinner for no reason” – forgetting that it was because she was mad at him for an argument they had a day earlier.
All of this information then goes to effect her self-concept. Even if she leaves that relationship for a little bit, do they get back together? More than likely – “I can’t help it, I like him so much. He was right, I was ‘flirting’ with that guy.”
2 – Everyone uses cognitive dissonance in relationships and elsewhere. The question is are you explaining it to stay in the relationship or are you explaining it to reduce the pain that you’re causing the other person by leaving the relationship? Here’s one last quote from Mistakes Were Made:
“Happy and unhappy partners simply think differently about each other’s behavior, even when they are responding to identical situations and actions.
That is why we think that self-justification is the prime suspect in the murder of a marriage. Each partner resolves the dissonance caused by conflicts and irritations by explaining the spouse’s behavior in a particular way. That explanation, in turn, sets them on a path down the pyramid. Those who travel the route of shame and blame will eventually begin rewriting the story of their marriage. As they do, they seek further evidence to justify their growing pessimistic or contemptuous views of each other. They shift from minimizing negative aspects of the marriage to overemphasizing them, seeking every bit of supporting evidence to fit their new story.”
In the end, the woman will either continue to justify her own foolish behavior or start down the road of shifting the blame of how she truly feels onto her “bad” partner. If she actually comes to a point where she is able to stop the justifications for his actions, and start to view the situation more objectively, she affords herself the opportunity to start at the top of the pyramid of choice again.
In closing, if you think this woman is “stupid” for staying in this relationship, consider people who major in subjects that they both dislike and don’t want to actually have a career with. Talk about a huge waste of f’ing money. Or what about people who spend 10+ years at a job they despise. They literally spend 50+ hours (includes commute and getting ready for work) at a job they hate and justify it away – taking NO actions to either better themselves or change careers.
Cognitive dissonance runs our lives, not because it’s a perfect theory, but because it helps to explain our imperfections. It helps us to look at ourselves in the mirror as reasonable people when we don’t follow our rules. At the end of the day, we are still able to live with ourselves – and since we are all not perfect, since we will always keep “breaking the rules” (after all, the rules were meant to be broken), we can still live with ourselves. The eventual question and the question that I’ll leave you with until next Tuesday is what are the things you’re not willing to compromise on? What are the things you shouldn’t “justify” to yourself? What are those essential elements of your life that you are willing to fight for? If you can answer those questions, then you can know when to use this theory in your favor and when it’s time to stop bullshitting yourself and make a change.
Next Tuesday, I’ll be back with how Cognitive Dissonance theory effects your willingness to exercise and how you can get a better grip on this mental blindspot.