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Chapter 7 - Cognitive Dissonance
'It is a happy faculty of the mind to slough that which conscience refuses to assimilate.'
― William Faulkner
A relatively famous psychology experiment was conducted once where students were divided into two groups. Both did a tedious job. One group was paid $10/hr. and the other group was paid $1/hr. Then individuals from each group were recorded describing their work to others. The first group reported the job was dull and boring, but it paid $10/hr. The second group was recorded touting the challenges of the work. The conclusion was that the human mind finds it difficult to maintain inconsistencies (i.e. boring work for low pay). As a result, reality is distorted to remove the anxieties caused by inconsistencies.
The students who were paid $1/hr. had convinced themselves to see some merit in what they were doing so that they wouldn’t be stuck having to wonder why they were wasting their time for $1/hr.
The ease with which we can twist reality (truth) for our own comfort underlies the warning about the leaven of the Pharisees. Peter and Barnabas were in danger of following a path where they would first excuse what they had done and then come to justify it.
The mind is not only taken captive through the comfort of altered reality. Consider the influence of riches (that the bible also calls 'deceitful').
And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother. And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! - Mark10:17-23
Here we have an example of how a young man came to be convinced he had kept the law. Jesus rather than confronting his limited understanding of the breadth of the law (Matthew 5:28) instead confronts the true object of his faith (his riches).
The young man had come to a point where his mental process had become disconnected from reality. It would have been impossible to convince him that he had become captive to unreal thinking (i.e. it was his riches that sustained him instead of God). He had apparent confirmation of his 'rightness' by his wealth and achievement in keeping the law. We find that prosperity can be a curse and occasional difficulties a gift from God that keeps us from traveling too far down the road of self-deception.
Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits. - Romans 12:16
We live in an age of unprecedented prosperity. Even people on welfare have more comfort than most kings and emperors throughout history. We have hot and cold running water, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, central heating, and 24 hour entertainment. The comforts of prosperity were a snare for the rich young ruler of Jesus’s day, just as they are for us.
The patriotic zeal and fever for war in the run up to WWI was intense. However, many combat veterans returned from the trenches after an almost constant barrage of artillery fire with a different view of the nobility of war. Painful reality has a way of purging ones delusions.
Prosperity can create alternatives to reality that allow comfort to be the determining factor of what is real over truth. The popular phrase from the 60s 'If it feels good, do it' reflects a little of the measurement criteria used for determining the best course of action when circumstances are not difficult. A man with a prosperous career as an attorney spent three years using cocaine and following this principal until he was homeless and destitute. Reality became his teacher that perhaps it was time to select a new philosophy of life.
The distortion we can have in our thinking caused by the comforts of prosperity are illustrative of the distortion we can have that results from our seeking to avoid the discomfort of truth. Just as a drug addict will do or say almost anything to chase after the feelings he desires, those who seek the comforts of the mind will alter their thinking to accommodate thoughts that are inconsistent with reality.
It would never cross the minds of the Pharisees that they were pompous showboats sadly trying to gain admiration from others to fuel their delusional sense of superiority. Like leeches they were feeding off the reactions they could manipulate in others.
Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. - Matthew 6:16
Here we have a closer parallel to the world of acting. Someone can become almost addicted to an audience reaction as if it verifies the high opinion that one came to have of himself. In classical cognitive dissonance, beliefs are altered to be consistent with behaviors to reduce discomfort. In actual practice everything (beliefs and behaviors) are malleable because what matters most are the feelings one gets from thinking one is superior, successful, accomplished, or simply better.
People can become addicted to the sensations they create in their own minds. Jesus called this sort of seductive call to abandon reality 'leaven'. It can start small and grow without notice.
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