5 Steps to Cognitively Distance in the Age of Cognitive Dissonance
How to continue loving loved ones whose beliefs and decisions offend you.
The era of cognitive dissonance has never felt more heightened than it is now. I have been disappointed with friends who purport anti-science and deep state conspiracy theories. It certainly does not help that when the leader of this country takes incontinent liberty in transmuting the facts, his supporters seem to enwreathe him with a bevy of excuses to protect their sire.
These people, I recognize, are engaging in cognitive dissonance — They bring fear. They bring misinformation. They can be racist. They can be sexist. And some, I assume, are good people.
Recently, my heart was crushed when I discovered a dear friend of mine who, not only revealed that she believed Trump to be a virtuous man, but that she was also immersed in harmful conspiracy theories. I have always valued the process of challenging and expanding my world views by learning from people from different walks of life and with different perspectives. However, peddling in counter factual and anti science movements seemed hard for me to reconcile, because the starting point for discussion is a bottomless web of misconstrued and altered factoids, shrouded in hubris. I engaged my friend in discussion and tried to reveal logical and informational gaps, conjuring up my use of ethos, pathos, and logos — but to no avail. I lamented — How could someone who seem so level-headed, independent minded, and someone who I cherished so dearly be living in such a different reality? And in a reality where killers, rapists, and pedophiles are the arbiters of the government, and Trump is the moral leader who will bring this growing debacle under control.
I wallowed for a few days in a feeling of loss, not yet of a friendship, but of a soulful connection betrayed by a cognitive divide. I knew that I needed to cognitively distance from certain people I loved to maintain the love I have for them, despite being disturbed by their ideas and beliefs. This is how cognitive distancing has worked for me:
- Let your heart be broken. The heart, not the mind, is where you need to focus on mending. The only way to cognitively distance is to hyper-activate your emotional need as a human to connect with others. The only way to activate that need is when you feel its impact on you. So, let that disappointment, sense of loss, and distaste you experienced with your loved one wash over you before re-establishing a connection under a new frame of mind.
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” — Charles Darwin, the Descent of Man
2. Suspend intellection. At least momentarily. I strive to learn and emerge with new insights and understandings through reading, research and conversations. However, you can assume that this person is committed to living in an information pod that does not intersect or interact with yours. Most likely, these people have been stricken by the Kruger Dunning effect, where they speak authoritatively about a topic even though they lack the skills needed to recognize their lack of knowledge or ability to assess the accuracy of that topic. Charles Darwin neatly captured this phenomenon: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” There are ways to overcome this meta-cognitive deficit, but I am not a psychologist. These people require more than presenting evidence, so all I can do is suspend my desire to bring them into an intellectual space that is worthy of my energy.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” — Walt Whitman
3. Recognize the contradictions of being human. We are complex beings that constantly live with contradictions, so you can live and be friends with someone who contradicts your belief system, if you want to. We have the ability to fluidly hold disparate beliefs, even when they are directly challenged. That contradiction may help you crystallize your own ideas and reaffirm why something is important to you. Contradiction can also be a sign that our creative mind is well and alive and making sense of how we exist within this complex world. The next time you find yourself being offended by your loved one’s cognitive dissonance, appreciate that humans contain “multitudes,” as noted by Walt Whitman; so embrace these contradictions that bring your life clarity and texture.
4. Compartmentalize — Just as we may find ourselves in relationships where the partner is not emotionally available, sometimes we find ourselves in relationships where intellectual-growth is unavailable, at least in this area. Place the stalled, demoralizing, and uninspiring conversations with your loved ones into a mental box in the back of your mind. No need to reopen this box. Every time these conversations creep into your head, slam that box shut so that you can enjoy your loved one’s company. It can be done.
5. Re-awaken your compassion. People buy into counter factual and anti-scientific notions as a result of and a response to social, economic, and educational inequalities. Although I am frustrated by the misinformation peddled by the anti-vaccine movement, I feel sympathetic to parents who succumb to that rhetoric because what do we care more about than protecting the health and safety of our children? Even those who passionately propagate the conspiracy that Hilary Clinton was covertly orchestrating some child sex-trafficking ring (because that is exactly what someone who spent her life championing universal childcare would do), really is also just thinking about making the world a better place for their children. I think amidst the cognitive divide, there is room for compassion. People’s different life experiences bring them to where they are today and even if I am repelled by certain ideas they possess, mutual ground can always be found in connection with parents’ aspiration for their children.
I have cycled through these steps of cognitive distancing with my friends and family with varying degrees of success. I find that when I commit to the steps, it has minimized the agony I feel towards the people I love and accept them for who they are. However, as I reach out and engage with my loved ones, I often find myself crossing my fingers that the future will be marked by more cognitive consonance, where societies’ common goal is to make fact based and data driven decisions and actions that are more congruent to one’s values. I reckon that being ideological is another part of the human condition that will inevitably compel me to discuss disagreeable topics with my loved ones. Therefore, I will continually be forced back onto my self-help hamster wheel until I have achieved the appropriate level of cognitive distance that will bring back my inner state of harmony, at least for the moment.