Monday, May 14, 2012

The intriguing squirminess of cognitive dissonance

Today I am going to talk about a psychological concept I find really fascinating: cognitive dissonance. I hope, by the end of this post, you will also be fascinated by it, because heck, at the very least, it's kind of fun to slip into conversation.

First! What on earth is COGNITIVE DISSONANCE?

As I mentioned last week, cognitive dissonance is squirminess of a particular kind. It is the squirminess that happens when two conflicting yet important beliefs reside inside your skull.

You know, like:
  • You believe cheating is wrong. You believe you are a good person. And then you cheat.
  • You believe the lottery is a tax on fools. You think you are not foolish. Then the Powerball reaches 700 quintillion and ...
  • You like the guy in the White House. You hear a political commentator saying that he could be doing a lot more to lower gas prices.
  • You think being traditionally published is a mark of success. You believe you have what it takes to be a successful writer. But you've queried, and so far, no joy.
  • You think being traditionally published is a mark of success. You get an agent! You get an offer from a Big 6 publisher! It's a "nice" deal. Meanwhile, you're reading tales of the self-published living off the income from their books.

Okay! Are you feeling squirmy yet? So here's the deal--cognitive dissonance itself isn't what's interesting here. What is: how people deal with it. Because, you know what we usually do? We either:
  • change one of the beliefs (or associated thoughts or behaviors),
  • acquire new beliefs consistent with ONE of the pre-existing beliefs, which tips the scales in favor of one, or
  • forget or underplay one or both of the conflicting thoughts, reducing their importance and the discomfort.
Using the above examples: students who agree cheating is wrong but who are then induced to cheat on a task report afterward that cheating ain't so bad, or is justifiable in certain instances. People who buy lottery tickets overestimate their probability of winning after the purchase. If you like the guy in the White House, you're much more likely to decide he can't do anything about gas prices. And as for the publishing examples ...

I've been reading the articles in the Guardian and the NY Times. And the blogs (oh, the blogs!). And the Twitter. The very good points made by proponents of self-publishing, as well as those made by proponents of traditional publishing. There's been a *bit* of snipery on both sides, too.

I can't help but wonder, how much of a role does cognitive dissonance play here for writers and other industry professionals? It seems like it's much easier to demonize one side, to promote one message, to dismiss evidence inconsistent with one's argument, to two-dimensionalize the whole debate, than it is to examine it critically. Oh, and by critically, I don't mean harshly (because there's plenty of that going around!). I mean by examining the assumptions behind the arguments, the interests of the people making the arguments, and the actual facts (though let's just admit that "facts" are quite difficult to discern, because they are so very easy to spin).

This comes into play in politics, too. IN FACT, just last week I was listening to an NPR feature about this very concept and its role in partisan politics! Did any of you hear it? If you didn't, it's seriously worth a listen or a read. Especially the bits about how, when it comes down to emotional connections or facts, we tend to jettison facts and cling to our emotional loyalties. The interview discussed how to "inoculate" ourselves against that, as well. It's simple, actually: people who feel good about themselves can more easily integrate uncomfortable facts that are out of sync with those emotional connections. [Again, I do urge you to skip on over to that NPR link. I promise you won't regret it, and that you will laugh if you listen to the whole thing, which is less than 5 minutes long]

How about you? Are you taking in all the information about traditional vs. self-publishing and withholding judgment? (Or do you not actually care that much about it?) Do you think cognitive dissonance is in play? Where else have you spotted cognitive dissonance in action?

ONE MORE THING: On Wednesday, I will be hosting Brigid Kemmerer, the author of STORM, a book I have read three times because it is just that enjoyable. Stop by for a chance to win a signed copy of STORM, and to learn how Brigid manages family dynamics and interpersonal tension in her stories. Speaking as a psychologist and a writer, I can tell you I'm really in awe of how she does it, and the results.


  1. Hmm ... I think I might be in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance ... :-/ I'm always looking at both sides of any story and finding pros and cons in each. It must just be how a story-teller's mind operates, I think.

  2. Having self-published AND traditionally-published (the same book, actually), I think I fall under the first category -- I changed my beliefs. The success of the book has less to do with how it gets published than the story itself, how much work the author puts into the marketing and especially the professionalism of the book itself, how much a publisher invests, and most importantly timing and the whims of the reading public.

  3. the traditional vs self pubbing debate definitely makes me squirm. There are just so many pros/cons for each and I'm not sure self publishing will over take traditional. But I do think more traditionally published authors will get their start in self publishing than ever before.

  4. My thoughts and opinions about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing have definitely evolved over the last year or so. Saying that, I probably flip-flop on the issue often. *sighs Apparently, I, too, am swirling in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance.

  5. I'm just glad to have you posting so often. One nice thing about not being able to get an agent, or get published, is that it gives me time to keep watching the self vs. traditional debate, to see what ends up happening.

    I kid. See what I did there?

    I'm off to NPR.

  6. I always thought CD was a fun topic in college psyc. And I think you're keeping up with the Interwebs more than I am... now I'm wondering if I should mend my ways. ;p

    As for Q re: self- v. traditional-publishing, I have thoughts about this, but I don't really want to publish them. I will say I've never considered it a cognitive dissonance debate, but it's definitely an interesting take on the matter! :o) <3

  7. I cannot tell you how many "civilians" have told me I should think about self-publishing. And yet I am not into it, Amanda Hocking notwithstanding. Why am I so traditional? (Cue moaning and wailing.) I don't know if it's cognitive dissonance, or just plain dissonance...

  8. I think most of us tend to agree with what with hear or read when it supports what we already believe and disagree when it doesn't. We're not looking for enlightenment, we're seeking support or justification. This is especially true in politics or, in our case, on the question of publishing.
    Confidence just feels better than squirming.

    I'm going to check out that NPR link. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Any adult who believes the world is either black or white is setting themselves up for these issues, aren't they? The world is shades of gray and so much comes into play in determining our values and opinions, including our current situation in life, what our significant others' think, and how badly we want something. Very interesting concept to explore!

  10. Squirm? Me?

    Just yesterday my dear, dear husband pointed out a self-published mom who runs a $5 million business selling baby name books.


  11. OOOH when I was into Social Psych, I loved the concept of Cognitive Dissonance. It's so very juicy. BUT my issue is this; How do you know when you've weighed both sides fairly (such as traditional vs. self-pubbed) and made a decision for yourself vs. slanting those weights in your mind? Know what I mean?

  12. Cognitive dissonance explains so much! Why do we do things that can end up feeling like self betrayal? I think maybe, once you get past reasonable and refined reasons, it comes down to 'we want what we want.' If we have to bend our beliefs or loosen our grasp of facts to have it, we will, either denying or ignoring the likelihood of 'it' coming back to bite us at some point. Seems like this applies not only to political beliefs etc., but to deeply personal life choices, like the importance of getting published however possible vs. the importance of being recognized by acknowledged gatekeepers (traditional publishers); or even who to marry. Oh, that's a good one. At the risk of cynical cliche, Love Is Blind. Whatever feeds our greatest need wins. Great fodder for writers, btw :)

  13. Are you telling me that cognitive dissonance is at work when I convince myself to keep writing because there may just be a chance I'll become famous? Pfft. ;P

    Srsly, tho, I LOVE this topic. Excellent post!

  14. I dealt with this issue of self-publishing vs. traditional. If you care to go back to the very beginning of my blog, you will see where I swore I would NEVER self-publish. But then other people were doing it, and the world didn't fall in, and after querying 4 books over 4 years, I figured I'd try it and see. It's worked out well so far, but that doesn't necessarily mean I wouldn't like a contract with a nice Big 6 publisher.

    Does that make sense?

  15. Cognitive dissonance is such an interesting concept. I think it explains a lot of irrational attitudes and behaviors!

  16. I like this concept! I've been doing that in the novel I had for ABNA. She can see through lies, which is making her judge others for lying. But she's also lying.

  17. I didn't know the name for my itch, LOL.

    Thanks for the definition. Great subject.

  18. ahman... i don't know, sarah. i think life... existence... is probably just a huge knotted, twine ball of strings of cognitive dissonance. all we can try to do is keep an open mind and process facts as they come. but that can be crazy difficult when your worldview is questioned. it is easy to ignore the facts- to be too weary or busy or just passionate about something to be impartial... in fact it is probably impossible to be perpetually impartial. but an open mind is an enlightened one (in my opinion).
    i think with most things there is no one right answer.
    the same goes for publishing.
    traditional is best for some.
    small press is best for some.
    self-pub is best for some.
    even with the same author- one book may be best received through a large publishing house while another would better fit a small niche market.
    the thing is... siding into one camp and shooting insult missiles at the other is completely silly.
    we all love books.
    we want them to be successful and reach the readers who they will impact.
    arguing over which vessel delivers them is ridiculous. it's like telling the postal service they should only use trucks, or trains, or planes, or ships... different packages require different transportation.

    if we pull ourselves back and look at the big ball of knotted twine that is snippets of information that contradicts each other and try to look at life as a whole and the universe as a whole and see solutions beyond two camps of thought, the dissonance disappears... it becomes harmonic. it become beautiful. i becomes life.
    i'm glad you're back!