“Danger Will Robinson!”

Wisdom is tolerance of cognitive dissonance.

Dr. Robert Thurman, American Buddhist author and academic

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on the foundations of cognitive development–see, I’ve been studying human development since I was in my undergraduate days at Lebanon Valley College (shout out to the amazing psychology department there–Drs. Deanna Dodson, Lou Manza–are just extraordinary!), but I’d been pretty focused on the social aspects of this. This paired really well with my burgeoning interests in social justice as a college student–especially in regard to social psychology. I never really looked back!

What has been prompting my reflection has been my foray back into the “social media wars” and the widespread sharing of misinformation and quick quips to score a point without substance. The idea that entire research studies, decades of work should be challenged by 140 characters or a fun meme from a person who became a keyboard warrior based on a talking point is just exceedingly frustrating (don’t get me wrong, I LOVE memes, just not in the contexts…but I digress…). That individuals, when confronted with anything that might challenge their myopic view, retreat to insults. Now- I’m not talking about full-on trolls who just shitpost, but people who will actively argue with you armed with their own ignorance.

I think it boils down to cognitive complexity, and, at its most basic, cognitive dissonance.

A yellow oval, with concentric white, blue, and black circles to represent SpongeBob SquarePants' eyes.
By Commons User – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67374450

Different cognitive development theorists have different ways to describe it- we might consider Jean Piaget’s disequilibrium or William Perry’s dualistic vs. multiplistic thinking; but in essence, cognitive dissonance is this uncomfortable feeling that our brains experience when we attempt to hold two competing, diametrically-opposed ideas or values at the same time. Whoops- one more important idea to explain here: the schema. Piaget argued that a schema is a mental representation, to me, sort of like a file folder, one of billions in our brain’s storage system, that helps us organize and process information without conscious thought or attention. Here’s a great illustration of the idea from a classic source, SpongeBob SquarePants (you can start around 4:35 or watch from the beginning for even more laughs!).

Here’s an extreme (but disgustingly realistic) example: You believe that all Black individuals are violent savages out to destroy society and rape White women (….a belief held by a pretty large swatch of the United States for much of our history in various ways and forms, even today). There is an absolutism here–ALL. That’s our first side of the teeter-totter.

We now encounter a really awesome Black person, a caring, genuine individual who believes and embodies all the things that you hold good and right and just in the world. Maybe this person was a historical hero like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or your local grocer, who went out of their way to help you when your credit card was declined. Or a Black individual working to carve out their slice of the “American Dream.” That’s the competing idea, the second-side of the teeter-totter.

Ruh-roh. Dun-dun. DUN-DUN. Siren in your brain. DANGER. DANGER WILL ROBINSON! DANGER! (This is the classic line from the Robot in Lost in Space, warning young Will Robinson when he was going to make a mistake- just add in the jiggly arm motion and you’ve got it). How is it possible that ALL Black individuals are violent savages, if THIS Black person demonstrated nothing but compassion? That another is doing the exact same thing you are doing. This discomfort is cognitive dissonance.

Although I’m not quite settled myself on how much of this is conscious versus unconscious processing, there are some different paths we can take to respond. You can: a) accept the new information and change your schema (Piaget’s accommodation), b) accept the new information but just absorb it, not changing your schema, almost like making a very tiny exception (Piaget’s assimilation), c) sit with the discomfort (very short-lived), d) outright deny it and decry it is “fake news,” or e) fight the idea and retreat to cognitive safety. I’m sure there are other ways, but those came freely to mind.

In my opinion, true cognitive growth, the development of new ideas and alternate frames of reference, the ability to hold multiple perspectives at once, to seek out and crave new knowledge to challenge potentially limited thinking, all begins with our willingness to struggle with cognitive dissonance. Piaget’s theories focused on children, right up until adolescence. At that developmental point, he argued, that as active constructors of our own knowledge given the ability to explore our worlds and everything that they have to offer, we should be able to hypothetically reason and consider abstract thought. Short of cognitive impairment or limitation due to disability, what excuses exists for adults who refuse to engage with this most fundamental aspect of who we are as thinking people?

There are none. Period.

True growth can only happen when we encounter cognitive complexities. When we wrestle with the difficulties of life and society. When we learn to understand that there are very few absolutes and that everything exists in shades of gray. We cannot create socially just societies, where all individuals are able to achieve, without first challenging deeply held prejudices rooted in ignorance and lack of cognitive complexity.

Listen to your Robot…but proceed. Seek out new information. Have the tough conversation. Actively listen to people’s experiences. I promise you, while challenging, it is incredibly rewarding and is a concrete step you can take on your journey toward understanding.

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