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I’m right, you’re wrong (Cognitive Dissonance)

I’m right, you’re wrong.

Polarised. Partisan. Divided. Entrenched. Our need for co-operation has never been greater, so why do we find ourselves so far apart?

From tackling the climate emergency to dismantling the politics of hate, good communication is vital. We need to talk responsibly and listen wisely. But all too often, we dismiss and deride. We stoke divisions and ignore evidence, even if it costs our own health.

Meet cognitive dissonance – the dangerous bias behind “I’m right, you’re wrong!”.

It’s a problem that starts early. By the time we’re six months old, we’re already judging and evaluating others. While few of us would claim to be the smartest people we know, we nevertheless place great faith in our own judgement. It directs our attention, chooses our relationships, decides what is truth. It’s the little voice that tells us, we have good reasons for acting the way we do.

We love this feeling of being right. So much so, when this happy assumption gets challenged – say, by a new piece of information – we experience powerful emotional discomfort. It can be especially painful if this new information catches us in an embarrassing light, revealing some hitherto unnoticed inconsistency between our behaviour and our beliefs. Put simply, if we feel “I’m a good person and I want to save the planet,” but also that “I love foreign holidays, cheap clothes and fast food,” then, when someone shows us those two positions are fundamentally incompatible, we feel bad. This is cognitive dissonance.

Unfortunately, often our response is to go full-on Basil Fawlty. Like the hapless hotelier, we make increasingly frenzied and violent attempts to maintain the illusion of calm. Uncomfortable information is downplayed (“ok, climate change is real; but I’m only one person, how can changing my habits make a difference?”), or even denied (“fake news!”). Worse, we’ll vilify anyone who dares call our illogicality to our attention.

Dissonance can also be triggered by making decisions; even trivial ones, such as what to ‘like’ on social media. Choosing implies a ‘right’ choice and a ‘wrong’ one. Having to defend our choice only deepens our convictions: our emotions intensify, and we scour the world for confirmation we were right. Facts cease to matter: the only important thing is their source (“my side or your side?”). This is what moves people from sadness that their candidate lost, to conviction that the election was stolen. And social media heightens this effect. By the very nature of its algorithms, it demands we make choices and share opinions; not just in what we post, but by what we like, downvote or even, simply, view. How do we combat this? The poet William Blake wrote, “the man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breed reptiles of the mind”. Cognitive dissonance can’t be avoided, but it can be challenged. We can learn to welcome new information. And, as aware communicators, we can celebrate change for the positive impact it brings.

Anticipating cognitive dissonance can improve our messaging, even for the toughest audiences.

To find out more about Lynn’s recent work in changing attitudes and encouraging wider vaccine uptake, click here.

This article was written by Ethan McQuaid, Behavioural Data Analyst at Lynn.

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