Cognitive dissonance and the debt ceiling

Following the discussions and debates regarding the U.S. debt ceiling vote and the general financial crisis in Europe, I was reminded of a book that left a great impression on me.

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson is an explanation of the powerful psychological sensation of “cognitive dissonance” — basically, that queasy feeling you experience when your deepest held beliefs and principles run up against a wall of reality which seems to show that everything you believed is proved false or at least questionable.

A real-life example of this type of experience is CTV reporter Kai Nagata’s explanation of why he resigned and the subsequent commentary.

Before you dismiss cognitive dissonance as youthful idealism or naïveté, I think many of us middle-aged (speaking for myself) types are experiencing that disconnect between how we believed how things should be and how the world actually operates. What makes the twist really interesting in our modern age is our ability to self-rationalize and justify actions that clearly are counter-productive. There may have been sound evolutionary reasons for this ability to be creative with the facts, but when they are sacrificed in order to keep ourselves comfortable it creates a false sense of security that borders on dangerous.

In terms of the financial crisis, the actual facts are almost beside the point. It’s our self-rationalizations and justifications of our personal and social comforts which deny reality. The difficult issue is the one of assigning and portioning blame. Blaming others is a very natural and even rational activity; accepting it and acknowledging our own personal responsibility as a contributing member of the problem is an entirely different equation. Whether we’re Greek pensioners, German taxpayers, American citizens who have earned their social security benefits, or average Canadians just getting by, this truly is a group problem, and it will require a self-critical group assessment to solve it.

Here are some other titles which explore the ways in which we fool ourselves:

Michael Shermer, The believing brain

Margaret Heffernan, Willful blindness: why we ignore the obvious at our peril

 Robert Kurzban, Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite

Arbinger Institute, Leadership and self-deception: getting out of the box

Cordelia Fine, A mind of its own: how your brain distorts and deceives


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