Saturday, July 12, 2008

Cognitive dissonance is your friend!

I was doing a little more thinking about cognitive dissonance today and a few things hit me all at once. Here's hoping I can make some sense of it.

It's actually quite hard not to be a hypocrite. As we grow older and, sometimes, more mature, our thoughts coalesce into set patterns, defining who we are. We'll settle into certain worldviews, adopt certain modes of speech, walk a certain way, hold our chopsticks a certain way, that sort of thing. It seems to me that the conscious mind (human, of course) does not actually take shape as a cohesive whole but comprises several "zones", if you will. I'm no neuroscientist, and I haven't done my homework on it lately, so all these jottings will have to be checked against the appropriate literature at some point. Anyway, back to the zones.

Because the conscious mind doesn't quite develop as a single, harmonious whole, which is to say, they are not necessarily closely connected to one another, we may sometimes find that the mechanism of cognitive dissonance is sometimes overlooked. i.e., 2 contradictory propositions may coexist inside the same mind as long as they are somehow kept apart, like the scientist who is a biochemist in the lab but a Christian at home. Anyway, that's one way of looking at cognitive development.

The other which occured to me is that the mind is very much connected, but cognitive dissonance is overcome by rationalisation. For instance, with the biochemist example, he may say that his roles as a scientist and as husband/father as so totally unrelated that he can essentially be 2 different people. The long and short of it is, either by the mechanism through which the mind develops, or through rationalisation, one can circumvent cognitive dissonance. But this strikes me as odd, and I have trouble empathising with this sort of behaviour.

Taking myself as an example, I require of myself that I be Me every moment of my life. Whether I function as store clerk, capoeirista, physicist, juggler, consultant, swordsman or googly-eyed geek at a laptop, I will always be Cheng, and I carry and apply my values and experiences with me in every aspect of my life. So when it struck me a few months ago that I simply didn't believe in my job as a consultant anymore, I knew I could no longer function, so I had to quit.

Others in my position may stay, rationalising that, no matter how much the job went against their beliefs, they'd stay, because a job is a job, and it's just something you do to pay the rent - Nick Naylor's Yuppie Nuremberg Defense. I don't like lying and try very hard not to, not so much as a result of upbringing as much as because I realised (far too late in life, alas) that I'm actually rather lazy, lies take too much effort to maintain, and everybody could save themselves a hell of a lot of trouble just by being honest all the time*. I think you can see how this attitude, coupled with a brutally skeptical empiricist mind, led to my eventual inability to function as a consultant in a Big 4 firm.

This is a trait I share with almost everyone I know, and certainly everyone whom I would call friend, seeing as I'm very averse indeed to spending too much time in the presence of vapid, consumerist hypocrites**. I suppose this is what they mean by "being true to yourself". We live in a very noisy world these days. It's becoming increasingly difficult to sort genuine wisdom from meaningless platitudes. As such, though it's increasingly difficult to maintain a skeptical mind, it's also that much more important, lest we lose track of what it is to be human and become what the marketing executive wants us to be: a walking wallet.

As for what it is to be human, I'm-a save that for another post.

* Granted, some feelings would probably be hurt, but I think happiness is drastically overrated anyway.

** Yet another reason I had to leave my previous employment.

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