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February 19, 2012

Cognitive dissonance means we talk past each other

One of the most interesting phenomena I see each week is our ability to hear one thing and think someone said something else.

I see this in response to my columns. I consider myself a pretty middle-of-the-road person who tries to synthesize positions from all sides into something logically consistent. It helps me make sense of what is happening around us and explain it to others in a convincing way.

Instead, I notice that some compartmentalize what they hear. I see that happening in responses to my columns. Some notice that I work for the college. They then place me in the "state employee" box and view what I write as coming from that perspective.

Others see that I teach, so I must be liberal, or see I was once a business-school dean, so I must be conservative.

These labels allow one to filter and view what I say from a different perspective than what I intended. My discussions then become affronts to their positions, on one or another side, rather than invitations for a thoughtful dialogue.

This cognitive dissonance is human nature. Simply put, when reality seems uncomfortable, we revise our view of reality. Such selection of facts is easy these days. We have the luxury of turning on a particular television channel and hearing only views from others who share our perspectives.

There is little true discussion, debate or exchange of ideas, only "entermation," my new term for entertainment that pretends to inform. And, with the larger and more diverse towns and cities within which we live, we can each find a group just like us so none of us has to really deal with any uncomfortable truths or differences.

Behavioral economists see cognitive dissonance as a way for us to create order in our world and in our thoughts. As society gets increasingly complex, we seek order not by thinking harder, but rather by selecting facts that are more consistent with our beliefs, or by surrounding ourselves with people who will filter information for us.

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