Cognitive Dissonance

Frustrated TeacherIt’s been a rocky school year. I’ve been doing this for fifteen years now, and thought I had a pretty good handle on how to teach freshmen. But they’re not getting it. It’s not that they can’t – it seems they’re going out of their way to NOT.

This is frustrating, because I like to think I’m a pretty decent teacher. I’ve taught the same subject for several years now, so I’m scrambling less - which is good, because I’m getting a little older and a little tireder.

So what’s the root of the problem?

It matters because what I’m observing, feeling, and experiencing, don’t mesh with what I believe about myself and my chosen profession. This creates cognitive dissonance – it rubs me the wrong way, internally and often subconsciously.

We’re wired to want cohesiveness, patterns, things that make sense and allow us some control over our responses. When things don’t fit, we make them – even if that means adjusting our priorities, our perceptions, or the facts themselves. Otherwise the world is playing out of tune with itself, just a shade sharp and off-tempo – and it’s maddening.

So, what’s up with my students this year?

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’ve been careless or cocky or I’m just getting tired. Perhaps I haven’t been as focused, or put in as much energy. I could be letting other things take too much of my time – like this blog, for instance. I don’t like that solution, though – it makes me feel like a failure, and I don’t want to spend less time on the other stuff I like.

History DetectiveMaybe it’s this focus on skills. I used to just teach some history, but no – we’re supposed to make them think and analyze and all that. From po’ baby to independent learner in less than a year? When everything else in their world is designed to coddle and entertain them? Impossible! I like this solution better, but… I kinda value the skills thing. And it’s not an entirely new thing, so it can’t completely explain the problem this year.

Maybe it’s this generation of freshmen. I’ve already noticed more helicoptering parents, more coddling by concerned adults, more learned helplessness. I mean, it’s not that they CAN’T do this stuff! They just don’t… listen! Or think! Damn kids – I do all this work, and they go out of their way to be clueless!

THIS satisfies on several fronts. It explains the results I’ve been getting, but without reflecting poorly on me as a teacher. It doesn’t require any major shifts in my personal priorities or beliefs about pedagogy or anything else. It’s easily reinforced as I interact with coworkers – I’ll always find agreement on negatives.

Best of all, the students can’t defend themselves since I’m unlikely to actually explain why I seem so increasingly hostile. They lack the tools or information to make a case for themselves even if I did.

Choosing a PathOnce I’ve unconsciously chosen a path towards resolution (of my cognitive dissonance), I find a trove of evidence supporting my solution. These freshmen really are clueless sometimes. That’s always been true, but that doesn’t matter – it’s true right now and feeds my narrative. There are always a few who go out of their way to be irritating. Again, always – but for now, proof.

“I mean, there’s only so much I can do if they simply refuse to pull their heads out of their behinds!” This really helps build some steam, as it lends emotional intensity to what could still prove an intellectually messy paradigm if confronted consciously. The more emotions in play, the less reason is required – awesome!

I’m unlikely to even question my internal framing – the assumptions behind “they simply refuse” and the disdain implied by "heads up behinds." I just feel, perceive, and believe

Because I’m not making an argument – I’m resolving an internal conflict. Like breathing, blinking, sweating or swallowing, these inner workings proceed involuntarily and automatically. I’d have to stop and focus to suspend them for even a few moments. To do that, I’d have to be aware of what was happening – which I’m quite contentedly NOT.

Cognitive dissonance results from conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. It’s uncomfortable, which usually leads to a change in attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance. 

Cognitive Dilbert 2

It’s so clear in others – the smoker who can rationalize away any health warning or medical problem, the friend whose husband shows every warning sign of cheating but turns on you when you express your concern. It’s a large part of why students with a ‘fixed intelligence’ mindset reject or belittle work they find challenging or confusing. It’s an even larger part of why they don’t “care how much you know” until they “know how much you care” – no one wants to meaningfully learn from someone they don’t like or respect. It creates dissonance.

End of the WorldA small group of believers know the time and date of the Second Coming. In preparation, they sell all they own, forsake jobs and families, and stand ready. It doesn’t happen. What would you expect to come next?

Those who admit they were wrong or deceived are a minority. The truly faithful double down, increase evangelical efforts, refigure times and dates, and become more passionately committed as a result. Facts are adjusted, doubts eliminated.

People with clear opinions about climate change, military spending, or immigration, are provided extensive information which may challenge those opinions. The most common result is greater conviction in their original views, not adjustments to them based on new facts.

Ferguson ProtestComrades of a police officer, soldier, teacher, doctor, or clergyman who takes a questionable turn have a natural sympathy for the position in which that individual finds themselves. They understand better than most how things can be, could have gone, or should be different. They feel the feels, face the challenges, and share the convictions which led them to the profession to begin with.

They face the same daily grinds and the same withering judgment of those on the outside, who simply don’t know…

As that comrade is questioned or criticized, dissonance intensifies. The easiest solutions are to either reject the accused (which creates its own internal conflict) or throw oneself more wholeheartedly into their defense. As commitment solidifies, facts adjust in support. Priorities shift to accommodate.

Militarized Police

It doesn’t make us bad people – it’s the most human of reactions. It does sometimes mean we’re dangerously wrong. It makes it easier to do unforgiveable things to maintain congruence. It allows us to corrupt ourselves and harm others rather than face our dissonance in other ways.

If there's an 'other side', the same thing may be occurring. Grays are washed away as sides are chosen. Moderation is condemned from all angles. While it’s unlikely that both sides are equally right or wrong, an unbalanced equation does not justify the dismissal of all inconvenient variables.

Life is messy, and almost everything important is more complicated than it first appears. Real conviction is impossible without a willingness to dismiss messy details (hence faith’s essential untethering from ‘sight’). We would be crippled by doubt if we properly pondered all information and considered every possible angle before every important decision.

Blinders OnBut let’s not fool ourselves regarding our passions. We value conviction and consistency more than we do content. We prize clarity over breadth of vision. It’s how we’re built, so presumably there are uses and advantages to such inner workings.

In my classroom and in my world, though, I’m going to try to do a better job of stepping back and being aware of how unreasonable my convictions may be. Right or wrong, I’m going to try to recognize my internal paradigm shifts and reality adjustments. I’m going to strive to expand my vision, and increase my clarity.

Besides, that way, I can do a much better job of setting everyone else straight on theirs.

Related Post: Condemnation Bias

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