NOTE: I am not affiliated with the authors, publishers or sellers of the book mentioned below in any way. I will receive no money from them for this article or any clicks of the Wikipedia link to the book below. I just think it contains ideas worth spreading and consider it a good use of a few hours of your life.
Cognitive Dissonance is just a fancy word for holding two conflicting ideas in your head at once. It permeates everything human beings do, and understanding it can help you understand people who act in seemingly irrational ways. Even more importantly, it can help you be a more honest, rational person.
Our minds are all full of dissonance in ways both profound and mundane. For example, I might consider myself a safe driver, but I may also think speed limits can be ignored. I may believe that stealing is wrong, but illegally download music. What’s interesting about cognitive dissonance isn’t that it exists; it’s how we rationalize it to alleviate the conflict in our minds. In the speeding example, I may tell myself that ignoring speed limits isn’t what causes crashes; rather, it’s speed differences. This allows my self-image of me as the safe driver to remain intact. If I just go the same speed as everyone else, I tell myself, then I don’t need to worry about the speed limit. Keep in mind that these sorts of rationalizations aren’t necessarily wrong. The thing is that they have a tendency to be because we don’t make them in a relentless search for truth but rather to make ourselves feel better. In other words, they tend to follow the path of least resistance. If a logical one can be found, all the better. But if not, oh well.
This is all wonderfully laid out in the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)* by Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris, one of the most useful psychology-for-laymen books I’ve read in a long time. The book gives many different examples, but some of the most thought provoking are those on political corruption and crime. Many people wonder how can someone at the top of American politics, someone with so much to lose, can be as stupid as some politicians are. A lot of seemingly inexplicable or horrible behavior is actually quite understandable when viewed through the lens of cognitive dissonance theory.
For example, the book asks the question: how do mobsters sleep at night? Its answer: the same way we all do. While something like the music downloading example might be far cry from accepting bribes or murdering a rat, the rationalizations that keep these people sane operate on the same basic principle taken to its logical end. It’s tempting to think these people are just extraordinarily greedy or power hungry or just plain evil. But they’re not. In most cases, even the worst among us really are pretty average. That is, that most people, given the right circumstances, are capable of doing horrible things. These people aren’t any more cruel or mean by nature than we are, but through a careful nurture, through many small steps of increasing self-delusion, they have to the conclusion that something as perfectly awful as murder can be acceptable. This is not to say that sociopaths and the like don’t exist. They do. But they are the exception in these cases, not the rule. Most of the people who do awful things are perfectly ordinary.
Anyways, I could go on forever, so I won’t, but I would encourage you to reads Mistakes Were Made. There are two takeaways from all this that I would like to highlight: (1) don’t get overly upset when people do seemingly terrible things; and (2) this is because there but for the grace of the almighty goodness being goes I. It can be useful to think of people’s motivations in terms of the delusions they’re selling themselves. We’re all just confused little creatures trying to avoid suffering and fulfill our desires.