Hiding behind a straw

In college psychology I studied something called cognitive dissonance. It means your brain is unable to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time, as it creates dissonance, or confusion. To relieve this, the mind will simply change one of the thoughts, in order to reconcile the problem. This might mean even changing information, so it gets quite… interesting, as you can imagine.

The classic example is that you stand in line for two hours to see a terrible movie. Your brain takes that information and comes to the simple conclusion: I’m an idiot. But the brain doesn’t want to think this. So he “changes” reality. He will either convince you that the movie was better than it actually was, or else he will tell you that you only stood in line for a few minutes.

The point is… your mind is trying to save his job, so he will often hide or change information to suit a version of the story in which he comes out the winner. Moral of the story: be careful trusting this devil.

This can be soooo subtle that you don’t even notice it, so stay alert. Here’s one that­–once I share it with you–you’ll start to see it everywhere. Let’s say someone says something rude to someone else, it might even be me talking to you, and this makes us both feel bad for a minute. Obviously you know why you feel bad–some nitwit just offended you!–but I feel bad, too, only… I don’t know why.

Of course, if I knew why I felt bad, I would simply apologize. But that takes a level of consciousness that not everyone enjoys.

So let’s say that I do know why I feel bad, but I’d rather not admit to myself that I’m a bad person. It would cost me too much, maybe. So I have to hide it from myself. Enter cognitive dissonance, stage left.

Watch carefully, because if I go this route, my mind has to do something akin to a quadruple axel in ice-skating, a veritable miracle of dexterity and complexity. It has to change the story of what happened, right in front of my eyes.

So get this: instead of apologizing, I have to somehow get the listener to react angrily to me–I’ll probably have to push harder than I did originally–while at the same time somehow manage to forget everything that I have said to them. In fact, the whole purpose of this exercise is to distract the both of us from what has taken place. This takes both total concentration and total ignorance at the same time. This takes artistry.

Yes, our brains are capable of this. I can actually pretend that you started all this, treating me badly, and convince myself that I’m the victim here. Remember, any explanation will do – Ah, so that must be why I feel bad! – to relieve myself of cognitive dissonance. So be on your guard, and don’t forget to applaud your mind. All this is, as we say in Italy, “roba da matti” (stuff of madness).

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