What the Heck is it? Why Should We Care?
And WHAT Does it Have to do With Writing?
Quite a bit, as it turns out.
Back when I was first getting a leg-up as a writer and joining writing workshop groups whenever I could, cognitive dissonance was one of those baffling terms I’d never heard of before, like defamiliarization and objective correlative.
Several people defined it for me as an individual having to choose between two at-odds belief systems or information sets.
That explanation could simply cover the situation where a person without a preexisting bias or belief in something is presented with separate systems, beliefs or information that are at odds and the person must then decide which set to choose.
But – as I learned -- cognitive dissonance is far more than just that.
Cognitive dissonance refers to when an already strongly held belief or subset of information is challenged by conflicting information or interpretation.
So instead of just weighing the benefits and strengths of each subset against each other, the person doing the weighing has another hump to get over – the struggle of confronting a contradiction to something they believe in, and the issue of whether or not they can let go of their original suppositions.
Whether they can or can’t accommodate the new information, the challenge leads to one or more emotional states: discomfort, resistance, agitation, nervousness, embarrassment, hostility, frustration. Perhaps they’ll eventually experience acceptance, and sometimes even an entrenchment in the supplanting belief or information stronger than what they felt for the original.
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Let’s examine Cognitive Dissonance briefly in terms of three writerly applications of sorts:
#1 – Cognitive dissonance as applied to characters in our pieces.
#2 – Cognitive dissonance as applied to story and plot structures.
#3 – Cognitive dissonance in terms of considering our readers and attempting to shepherd them.
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Cognitive Dissonance and Characterization
Consider the points in your stories where your characters have to confront new information that’s at odds with what they think they know and believe in. Take into account your characters’ discomfort and how they react: Denial? Embarrassment? Resistance? A grudging recognition of the new set of facts or the different interpretation? Anger? Unease?
In any of these instances, has the new set of facts and the concomitant distress made it possible for your characters to become more emotionally and/or intellectually open to whatever the particular paradigm shift is?
Now think about these two potential side effects in terms of your characters' actions and reactions. Are any of your characters so entrenched in their beliefs that even in the face of new evidence or proof to the contrary they will not merely resist the new information or learning, but perhaps go to great lengths to deny it?
Or, contrariwise, are there characters who – after learning and accepting something that they originally strongly resisted – end up becoming more adamant about the new knowledge than they were about their former beliefs, even if the new learning itself is later proved false? What we’re talking about here is the fervor of the converted.
As just a few examples:
The young soldier who believes his army is invincible until it falls apart in battle.
A child whose trust in her parents is absolute until she catches one or both of them engaging in dishonest or unsavory behavior.
A couple who dislike the family next door because they believe them to be evil or irresponsible, only to discover that they live quiet lives of charity and goodness.
Take time to give some thought as to how nuanced these circumstances can be, how complex the character development that might arise from all of this.
What if a character’s belief in something is strongly challenged by evidence of some sort that proves that their beliefs are incorrect? And what if the character’s faith is shaken, perhaps destroyed, but for one reason or another they do not embrace the new information subset?
There could be any number of developments onwards from that point: The character could lapse into despair or become cynical to the point of amorality or intellectual drift. Or they could keep seeking information and knowledge until their distrust in the disproving subset of information proves the new subset false. How would that impact their persona? Would they feel empowered? Become even more cynical? Or . . ?
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Cognitive Dissonance and storylines and plot structures
These instances of discomfort and disconnection often don’t strike the reader (and sometimes not the author either) as climatic arcs in a story. But they are usually essential and pivotal, one way or the other – the points, in fact, from which the climaxes may in good part eventually derive. The young soldier ends up deserting. The child reports her parents to the police or other authorities. The couple finally introduce themselves to the neighbors they'd been shunning.
A consciousness of the long term effects of cognitive dissonance leads to a second application. The more as writers that we’re aware of and sensitive to these pivotal junctures, the more we can finesse the moments that lead to our characters’ crises of faith in the first place, thereby making the characters’ discomfort and eventual reactions either yea (acceptance) or nay (denial) more palpable and believable. And then the more we can adroitly structure and lead up to the climaxes that result from the characters changing or entrenching.
In other words, these moments can have a significant impact on our plots.
Then expand the concept. What if the cognitive dissonance is experienced not just by individuals, but by whole groups of people? How do those larger situations impact what happens on a societal level?
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Cognitive Dissonance and our readers
In my teaching I talk a lot about deliberately shaping readers’ perceptions of our writing in order to prepare our audience to receive and experience our narratives in the ways that we want them to – at least as much as possible. It’s a shepherding sort of strategy.
One of the issues we need to keep in mind when doing this is to try to be aware of areas in our narratives that might cause our readers to experience cognitive dissonance. Which might not be the same places in the text where the characters experience cognitive dissonance. Or they might be.
As you’re writing along, think about whether there are places in your stories that will challenge your reader’s suppositions or beliefs. For me, I think that other than a few very short, mild, humorous pieces, everything I’ve written has had places where I’m sure that readers with certain ideas and beliefs would feel quite uncomfortable and challenged.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, though I don’t want those feelings of discomfort to toss them all the way out of my stories. With any of my writing that has a more serious intent, I don’t just want to “preach to the choir.” I’d like for people to read my work and for it to set them to thinking, maybe change their minds to a certain extent about certain things.
So I have to give serious thought as to how I’m going to write those particular sections that I know are likely to cause readers to experience cognitive dissonance: How do I frame the words, how do I present my characters and their situations in such a way as to trigger that discomfort and also trigger a moment of recognition that might eventually lead to acceptance? If I’m not aware of readers’ potential level of cognitive dissonance – if I’m not aware of cognitive dissonance’s difficulties and benefits – I’m likely to fail in that regards. And this is an aspect of our narratives where we don't want to fail.
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For any of you who are interested in more background and information on cognitive dissonance, I recommend British educator James Atherton’s essay on the subject at:
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- Michaela Roessner, Prose Concentration Faculty -