Cognitive dissonance describes an intense emotional stress reaction experienced after an individual recognizes that they hold two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time (Festinger, 1957). This discomfort happens when realizing the logic that two things that oppose each cannot both be true. Cognitive dissonance can occur when an individual learns new information that conflicts with already held beliefs or when they perform a contradictory action to their belief. When people realize that their internal consistency is challenged, they get extremely distressed and will either do things or change their cognitions to bring that consistency back.
A simple example of cognitive dissonance is one that many of us have probably experienced. I have often told myself, “It’s time to eat healthier.” I make a pact with myself that I will cut some unhealthy foods from my diet. However, then a craving for frozen yogurt comes around, and before I know it, I’m on the way to get myself some froyo. I add all of the delicious candy toppings, and my attitude and my head tells me that my kind of frozen yogurt is unhealthy. I feel dissonance between my attitudes and my behaviors of eating it. Yet, I justify my decision to eat this unhealthy food and reduce my cognitive dissonance because “hey – at least it’s not ice cream.”
Cognitive dissonance occurs with my frozen yogurt consumption, as well as serious and systemic issues. It informs how we, as humans, deal with these things.
I think that humans are, at the core, inherently good. Cognitive dissonance exists in large proportions because if we were always aware of how unjust society is, we would be sad and angry all of the time. To deal with some of the horrors of the real world, we resolve our dissonance by making excuses, trying to rationalize, or ignoring injustice. With that being said, no progress could ever happen if we let our cognitive dissonance rule. The purpose of these three blogs is to address and challenge our cognitive dissonance in order to raise awareness to the important issues that plague our world.
One of the ways cognitive dissonance helps humans rationalize injustice is through the idea of meritocracy. The myth of meritocracy is the notion that people work for what they have, and successful people have worked for it and earned it. Thus, people in poverty and people who have not been successful didn’t work hard enough. This ties into the idea that anyone can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make a good life, if they try hard enough.
Although effort is incredibly important, this concept devalues the importance of systemic influences and blames victims of inequities. An individual is impacted by their overarching multilevel systems, and often, issues are stimulated by problems in the system, rather than in the individual.
In examining the myth of meritocracy and its role in cognitive dissonance, I will discuss the experience of homeless families. Typically, when someone thinks about the homeless, they automatically think of an adult man who has done something to deserve his homeless status. People in cities walk past homeless people thinking they are crazy, are on drugs, or are lazy. People’s cognitive dissonance leads them to think that the homeless person has done something to deserve their situation. Yet, people’s dissonant perception of homelessness and the myth of meritocracy are often wrong.
Although a majority of homeless people are adult men (67.5%), homeless families compose 1/3 of the homeless population in the United States (The National Center on Family Homelessness, 2011). These homeless families typically consist of a mother in her late twenties with two children. In Pennsylvania, there are approximately 43,000 homeless children (The National Center on Family Homelessness, 2011). Homeless children are more likely than other students to have mental health, physical health, and academic concerns.
Often, these homeless families are victims of circumstances that have led to their homelessness, due to systemic factors like unemployment, poverty, lack of affordable housing, and domestic violence incidents. The homeless family is just like any other family, struggling to support themselves, trying to help their children succeed in school, and caring about each other. When systemic influences put people in a compromising position, it seems impossible to get out of it. An example can be thought of in an experience of a mother who is fleeing, with her children, from an abusive partner. In this kind of emergency, this family needs to escape immediately. Often, this mother will have nowhere to go, and must stay in a shelter. Her income is dramatically lower, due to the absence of her partner, and she must work alone to support her children. In the crowded and loud shelter, she tries to maintain a normal life while balancing her lengthy job. She wonders how she can best support her children when the world has served her an unfair and grim situation.
Yet, when she begs for money on the subway, all people see is a woman trying to scam them to get money to buy drugs.
Our cognitive dissonance does not allow us to see the full picture, makes us jump to conclusions, and doesn’t allow us to think about the serious issues that impact our society. How can a school-aged child who is homeless and seeking shelter be successful at school? How can a single mother provide for her two children on one low-wage salary? How can we walk past a homeless person on the street and make judgments about their life? And, most importantly, how can I, as someone who is concerned about trying to justify my frozen yogurt consumption, stand idly by? I cannot – and therefore, by addressing and confronting my cognitive dissonance, I will fight against trying to rationalize injustice and will attempt to help others confront their cognitive dissonance as well.
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
National Center on Family Homelessness. (2008). The characteristics and needs of families experiencing homelessness. Retrieved from http://www.familyhomelessness.org/media/147.pdf