Pounding Square Pegs Into Round Holes

August 14, 2010

Have you ever watched a group of three-year-olds at one of those play tables that have all the differently shaped holes and pegs and the little wooden hammers?  The object of the game is to let children learn which pegs fit into which holes.  There are always one or two children, however, busily trying to pound the square peg into the round hole and, occasionally, one of them will manage to get that square peg into the round hole just far enough for them to walk away triumphant.  It’s cute when they’re three years old.

Last week, I spent some time in one of those interminable internet arguments with a virtual friend in which she said something to the effect that “atheists” did X and I said something to the effect that “Christians” did Y and neither one of us bothered to use modifiers like “some” atheists or “certain” Christians.  So, we spent a ridiculous amount of time over the next few days busily trying to pound the square peg of what the other said into the round hole of our version of reality.  Not so cute when you’re grown-ups.

We see and, sometimes, participate in such arguments all across the internet.  For the most part, they are an amusement (although some become particularly hateful amusements) in which we try out our various points of view about the categories we’ve developed over our lifetimes.  The most vicious arguments seem to arise out of the way each of us categorizes our fellow human beings.  (At least, I’ve never seen a really down and dirty, no holds barred argument about the superiority or inferiority of, say, a Labrador retriever versus a poodle.)  They tend to center around categories like race, religion, sexuality, wealth and political leaning.

The skill of categorizing things around us is a useful one, which is why we begin teaching it to our children at such an early age.  As we mature, we learn the equally useful skills of defining, modifying and giving hierarchy to objects, persons and our experiences with (and thus beliefs about,) the people and things in those categories.  We develop the ability to put those into more than one category and the ability to move them from one category to another as new information about them arises.  It’s a complex process. One, unfortunately, that is easy to manipulate.  Why?  Because all of these modifications involve, to one degree or another, something called cognitive dissonance.  And for a while at least, new categories may be fragile things, depending on how easily and how completely you overcome that cognitive dissonance involved.

“Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding contradictory ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying.

“Hindsight can clash with prior expectations, as, for example, with buyer’s remorse after the purchase of a new car. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. Despite contrary evidence, people are biased to think of their choices as correct. This bias gives dissonance theory its predictive power, shedding light on otherwise puzzling irrational and destructive behavior.

“A classical example of this idea (and the origin of the expression “sour grapes”) is expressed in the fable The Fox and the Grapes by Aesop (ca. 620–564 BCE). In the story, a fox sees some high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When the fox is unable to think of a way to reach them, he surmises that the grapes are probably not worth eating, as they must not be ripe or that they are sour. This example follows a pattern: one desires something, finds it unattainable, and reduces one’s dissonance by criticizing it. Jon Elster calls this pattern “adaptive preference formation.”

“A powerful cause of dissonance is an idea in conflict with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as “I am a good person” or “I made the right decision.” The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization, the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one’s choices. A person who just spent too much money on a new car might decide that the new vehicle is much less likely to break down than his or her old car. This belief may or may not be true, but it would reduce dissonance and make the person feel better. Dissonance can also lead to confirmation bias, the denial of disconfirming evidence, and other ego defense mechanisms.” (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance )

Suppose you have a category called Dangerous Animals, into which you have put all animals bigger than a toy poodle.  You also have an acquaintance who invites you to join a jogging group, which is going to meet at her apartment to plan a jog next weekend.  You want to join a jogging group, so you go to her apartment to meet the group and find, to your horror, your acquaintance has a Great Dane sitting by her side and that she regularly takes the dog on these jogs so that it can get some exercise. On the one hand, you really like this acquaintance and the other members of the group; on the other hand, your brain is screaming, “Danger, danger, big animal, really big, BIG animal.”  This is cognitive dissonance.

Now suppose, in the middle of the meeting, the Great Dane climbs up on the couch beside you and lies down with its head in your lap.  Your brain is still screaming, “Danger,” but the dog seems quite tame and you reach out to give it a tentative pat on the head.  It sighs with obvious contentment. Your acquaintance says, “Gertrude really likes you and she’s such a people doggie.  Everyone here just loves her.”

Sure enough, everyone nods his or her head in agreement and, by the end of the meeting, you have moved Gertrude out of the Dangerous Animals category and have placed her, temporarily at least, into a new category called, Animals Bigger Than a Toy Poodle That May Not Be As Dangerous As I Thought.  Having done that, and, at least, temporarily relieved the cognitive dissonance, you agree to go on a jog with the group and consider joining the group on a permanent basis.

You also have another acquaintance who jogs and wants you to join his jogging group.  You tell him about the other group and he says, casually, “You know, Great Danes will pick up a small animal or child by the neck and shake them to death.  I had a friend who says his cousin’s baby died that way.  You just can’t trust Great Danes.”

All the cognitive dissonance you’d felt and temporarily overcome, returns.  Seeing this, he says, “We don’t allow dogs in our jogging group.”

You can substitute people of any race, religion, sexuality, wealth and political leaning for the Great Dane in this story and see how difficult it sometimes is for us to modify those categories and how easily manipulated we can be as we move people from one category to another.

Since cognitive dissonance is such a common experience across humanity, it must have served to give us an evolutionary advantage of some kind.  Perhaps fear of “the other” promoted tribal cohesion and increased the ability to fight off outside attacks.  But if we developed strategies to overcome that dissonance, they, too, should have an evolutionary advantage.

We live in an increasingly intertwined world where our perceptions of the other can be manipulated into wars with worldwide consequences, used to justify the continued destruction of our environment and climate and, in a world of dwindling resources and increasing economic contraction, justify dehumanizing portions of our fellow human beings whose needs we fear might threaten our own survival.

But,if we don’t want to destroy ourselves and those we hold dear in this period of upheaval, we might want to heed the cognitive dissonance that those blanket statements and sweeping generalizations we hear or make evoke and examine whether or not the people covered by them really fit the categories they imply.  Ask yourself what you or the person gain by those generalizations and see if it really is a gain for you.  Seek out, talk to and really listen to someone from that category.

We can reduce cognitive dissonance by challenging and changing our blanket attitudes and beliefs – and thus, our actions.  Or we can reduce it by justifying, blaming and denying – wasting all that time and energy trying to pound those square pegs into round holes.

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