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The Daily Dissonance Struggle

2013 October 29
by Eric Horowitz

I have a new article at Pacific Standard that takes a look at the psychological issues Republicans are struggling with as they attempt to stick to their beliefs in the face of waning public support. In short, they’re torn between shifting their beliefs to better align with the public, and reinforcing their beliefs to alleviate the sting of being in the minority. As always, go read the whole thing!

More broadly, I think that despite being relatively well-known, the role of cognitive dissonance in everyday life still flies under the radar. People tend to emphasize how dissonance incites or prevents large and visible decisions (e.g. deciding you no longer support the death penalty) but I think the real impact is in marginal belief shifts over the course of your life.

Here’s one example: Generally between the ages of 14-25 people becomes less concerned with what their peers think about them. It’s a natural progression that occurs as you go from being a middle school student to not being a middle school student. But those marginal shifts induce unpleasant dissonance as you deal with the fact that you spent time an energy concerned with something you’re no longer concerned about.

All of which is to say that the ups and downs of every day life are largely a result of the dissonance we experience as our outlook and priorities go through seemingly imperceptible changes. As we feel ourselves abandoning a belief that no longer serves us well we experience discomfort from losing the sunk cost of all the effort dedicated to acting on that belief. But once you overcome that dissonance, you’ve got a belief that’s better suited to your current situation, and you’re better off because of it. Then the cycle starts over again.

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