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A primer on cognitive dissonance

Posted on: March 2, 2016

Before I conduct seminars or workshops, I tell participants that I design activities to create cognitive dissonance.

Challenging adults on what they think they know is one of the best ways to learn. So I tell participants how to detect moments of cognitive dissonance and to take advantage of them instead of dismissing them.

Every now and then I get feedback after I conduct a session that goes something like this: Thanks for providing this experience. I have learnt a lot. But we’ve been doing this for a while. You’ve helped us put a name to our process.

This could be an awkward form of praise, a backhanded compliment, or something else entirely. So I ask questions, clarify, and then reply. By doing this, I have come to recognise a pattern. Often the person who provides this feedback is the least participative and the most authoritative.

Their authority is not necessarily one of rank, seniority, or position. It comes from a place of supreme confidence that what they already know is best. The problem is that they do not know that they might have a limited perspective that is informed neither by research nor by critical practice.

Another hallmark is the inability to articulate what they think they know or do. Recently I asked someone what they already do. Over a few minutes, I received an answer that was structured as such: We do [noun], [adjective], and [verb].

Here is an example designed to protect the innocent (and not-so-innocent). What I heard them say is that they do apple (noun), delicious (adjective), and blending (verb). If they know their strategies and methods, they should be saying something like slicing, sharing, and blending (all verbs).

If someone is not capable of clearly articulating what they believe, know, and practice, I am not convinced that they have well-founded beliefs, knowledge, or practices.

A practitioner of cognitive dissonance might say that this person is trying to assimilate new ideas into old and existing schema. This is the force-fitting of seemingly related concepts into a larger concept. This is like putting “socks”, “windy”, and “sailing” into the drawer of “something to do with air”.

What a humble and reflective learner should do is accommodate instead. This could mean putting the three concepts in three or more different drawers. It could also mean adding to the schema by creating new categories of understanding.

When a learner assimilates, new information is added to existing knowledge. He or she learns something that serves as an example, a reminder, or an extension.

When a learner accommodates, new information challenges his or her existing categories of knowledge. This is a much more troublesome and active process. As a result, the learning gains are much higher.

A practitioner needs to rely on both strategies while leveraging on cognitive dissonance. Assimilation is comforting; accommodation is challenging. I generate more of the latter to live up to the term dissonance.

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