The book, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson presented a compelling narrative of how easily and commonly self-justification is employed by either simply ignoring or refusing to entertain opposing viewpoints and perspectives.
Cognitive dissonance is widely understood to be the mental distress or discomfort experienced when we have two or more contradictory ideas, thoughts, beliefs or values at the same time.
Last week we introduced The Habit of Seeing All Sides as a powerful practise to allow ourselves to be better prepared when presenting our argument or side of a story but also as an invaluable tool in developing a keen understanding of the opposing viewpoints of others.
The book details a few tragic examples of cognitive dissonance at its finest.
We are all familiar with tragic tales that surface from time to time of people who have languished in prison for years because police and prosecutors, convinced of their guilt, have elected to pay no attention to overwhelming evidence to the contrary that may have exonerated them.
As heart-rending as these stories are, these instances of injustice are, thankfully, relatively rare but speak volumes to the inherent dangers of being so convinced of the righteousness, truthfulness and correctness of our beliefs that we refuse to even consider the possibility of an opposing viewpoint.
The Habit of Seeing All Sides never takes anything away from our argument but always, when employed with curious objectivity, paves the way for us to grow in ways that can only serve to broaden or thinking.
We all know of people who flatly refuse to entertain any possibility of an opposing viewpoint.
I’ve always found that an unwillingness of some folks to see all sides is rather limiting as refusal to examine another perspective suggests that perhaps an element of fear exists in that person.
The fear might be that hearing, observing and becoming aware of an opposing side may weaken their own belief and, if that is the case, it can only suggest that their belief was not as strong and absolute as they may wish.
Many years ago I watched an interview with a well-known and highly regarded TV evangelist in which he boasted of reading many books that challenge the precepts of Christianity as well as reading a number of books extolling the virtues of atheism.
When asked why he would devote time to reading such books, he replied that they served only to strengthen his conviction and his belief and that only by truly understanding the opposing opinions of others could he believe as deeply, with as much unconditional faith as he did.
No cognitive dissonance there.
It was not a matter of “testing” his faith but rather a function of strengthening it.
A wise teacher of mine used to say that we can only ever experience true and unconditional freedom when we are willing to hold up to the light every single belief we have, examine it from all angles and modify if needed.
His explanation was a simple as it was profound. He said that it is only by examining every side can we truly be sure of the correctness of our beliefs.
Humans are walking, talking opinions dressed up as facts. We believe our opinions to be true, argue for them, fight for them and even go to war over them.
Perhaps, by adopting The Habit of Seeing All Sides, we could save ourselves the damage incurred from the polarization of conflicting thoughts by opening ourselves to the close examination of all sides, truly understanding them and only then forming a lasting, informed opinion.
After all, if, as they say, knowledge is power, then surely The Habit of Seeing All Sides will lead to The Habit of Ever-Increasing Wisdom.
And we don’t want the other side of wisdom, do we?
Let’s make a habit of meeting like this.