This week we’ve been focusing on such mental turbulence caused by the collision of two opposing thoughts, which psychologist Leon Festinger back in 1956 coined cognitive dissonance. It’s a simple, elegant theory that explains so much: heartache, grief, all sorts of conflict, even war. We walk around believing we’re right about, well, everything, and anything that intrudes on this illusion is batted away and flattened like a pesky fly. The brain, marvelous as it is, is also stupid and largely incapable of dealing with disorder. In fact, the brain will create order even where none exists. I’m right, you’re wrong, let’s move on. Or not, if you’re trying to pass reform in Washington.
I’ll supply one extreme example of our resistance to cognitive dissonance, and you can work back from there. Years ago, a man and his wife slithered into a wedding in Israel with explosives strapped around their torsos, intent on killing themselves and as many Jews as they could. Had these two invited a little head-spinning dissonance into their lives—acknowledging that Jews are fully human—they might have retreated, and a senseless tragedy could have been avoided. But no, they decided they would rather blow themselves up than admit their beliefs might be wrong.
My essay assignment this week for students: List three personal beliefs and write about how you might be wrong about each one. Invite some temporary dissonance, then reexamine your beliefs under this new light.
As you might expect, this is one challenging essay. We should assign the essay to every elected politician in Washington, yes?
(Thursday night was Open House, wherein I was reminded that I am as old or older than parents, who once seemed, if not intimidating, old, but they weren’t, they aren’t. How did this happen?)
(I also had the opportunity to speak to three large groups of students at Rolling Meadows High School, who asked incisive and thoughtful questions that reflected their maturity and generous spirit.)