Monday, 10 February 2014

Why did you do that? - Cognitive Dissonance and Character Motivation

I’ve been struggling a bit this year so far. To say anything.  Aethelread posted a disturbing entry to his blog yesterday, filled with honesty at how he is feeling (great bravery and detachment), so I thought I could perhaps make more of an effort myself.  Time Traveller asked me if I was writing recently, and I replied something along the lines that I had very little time, hardly any focus and zero ideas.  This is true.  She seems to be barrelling along with a fury, which is righteous news, writing wise, as she’s so good. I hope for a barrelling period of my own sometime soon.

In the meantime…

It’s been biblical, the rain, here.  On and off, that 40 days and 40 nights.  I start to wonder if it’s washing me away, that being dry inside is some form of illusion.  I read a quote the other day by Orson Welles about the idea that you’re born alone, live alone and die alone, and only the illusion of friendships and family keep you sane…along those lines. I was really struck that he called friendship and family an illusion.  I’ve long been convinced of the born, living and dying alone bit.  If you’ve ever had a fit of depression or sadness you see quite clearly that you are utterly alone, that that is no illusion at all.  But I’ve never seen the friendships I’ve made as illusory.  They are real enough.  (And family – what trouble they can be – they definitely aren’t illusion!)

But Welles has a point.  I don’t think any relationship is what you think it is, as you can’t see into other people’s heads.  Even if you sat down with your best friend, or your partner, and had a brainstorming session where you swore to be utmost honest, and made ground rules for your relationship where you both by the end, have some sort of list and are on the same page with core values and beliefs, assumptions, basic ways of viewing the world; so that even if you disagreed with one another, you would at least understand each other…I still maintain you would likely not have a clue at all as to what’s truly going on in your friendship or relationship.

I was talking to Fry yesterday.  He is walking a torturous winding way and has been for sometime.  It’s a shame you cannot save your children from the pits you fell into, that people cannot learn lessons at second hand.  Still.  Fry postulated that most of my friendships and all my relationships have worked along a pattern whereby I think in my head that its ‘us against the world’.  A unit.  Two freaks together, navigating an uncertain and scary world, but together in seeing the joy, having moments of wonder.  And that if someone then does something contrary to my idea of them, it breaks my ‘siege mentality’ and throws me completely.  Leaving me lost.

That has happened twice in close friendships recently.  It leaves me feeling a bit like an idiot, a bit disillusioned and unclear.  Mixed signals flying about all over the place.  I'll give you an example of one of the incidents.  Someone being nice to me in quite a genuine seeming way though they know they have done something that has really upset me.  I expressed it, fully and clearly – and got…practically zero reaction.  I’m really not sure what I’m supposed to do with little explanation, hardly any expression of remorse, and being left with the feeling, due to another’s calmness, that I am merely having a tantrum by myself.  Instead of a legitimate reaction to ( a repeated) wrongdoing.  I then start twisting myself into a pretzel trying to understand why the person did what they did, what their state of mind could have been.  I try to understand.  I try to understand the lack of reaction, of talking.  I make little lists in my head – doesn’t want confrontation, feels explanation won’t be listened to, is very angry and doesn’t want to say something that will be regretted, or conversely, actually doesn’t really care much at all about the issue and thinks I’m making a storm in a teacup, so the best way to blow over it is to just act all business as usual.  Which would explain their being as nice to me as usual – as if I hadn’t just expressed great upset and disquiet.

The person in question isn’t usually a game player either.  If anything, they are sometimes in ignorance of their actions’ consequences for others.  I don’t suspect (I think) any great masterplan to freak me out or control me via withholding of reaction – as if I’m an actor performing to a mannequin and getting nothing back to work with, no two way street.

In a way, this is all great writing stuff.  My total confusion at other people’s motivations and actions, my attempts to understand.  The contradictions of someone knowing I am angry with them and not seeming to care enough to address it at all, but being perfectly pleasant as they usually are – as if nothing at all had happened.  Bit of cognitive dissonance there on my part for sure.  I remember saying ages ago that I was going to do a post about cognitive dissonance and I never did.  Maybe this is a quick post about that, then.  Not a proper one, as I don’t feel in the mood to relate any experimental examples.

Cognitive Dissonance was proposed by Leo Festinger in the late 1950s.  It’s basically the sense of acute mental discomfort you experience when you experience or do something that is contrary to your beliefs or expectations.  Something did not turn out the way you thought it would.  That’s a massive over-simplification, but here’s a very ordinary example so you see what I mean, one that’s happened to me and probably some of you in the past –

"Imagine that you prepared at great length for a dinner party at your home. You constructed the guest list, sent out the invitations, and prepared the menu. Nothing was too much effort for your party: you went to the store, prepared the ingredients, and cooked for hours, all in anticipation of how pleasant the conversation and people would be. Except it wasn't. The guests arrived late, the conversations were forced, and the food was slightly overcooked by the time all of your guests arrived. The anticipation and excitement of the great time you were going to have are discordant with your observation of the evening. The pieces do not fit. You're upset, partly because the evening did not go well, but also because of the inconsistency between your expectation and your experience. You are suffering from the uncomfortable, unpleasant state of cognitive dissonance."
(Cooper, 2007)[1]

Now, Festinger went on to state:
"Festinger's insistence that cognitive dissonance was like a drive that needed to be reduced implied that people were going to have to find some way of resolving their inconsistencies. People do not just prefer eating over starving; we are driven to eat. Similarly, people who are in the throes of inconsistency in their social life are driven to resolve that inconsistency. How we go about dealing with our inconsistency can be rather ingenious. But, in Festinger's view, there is little question that it will be done."
(Cooper, 2007)[2]

He thought that people could not exist with the uncomfortable feeling of knowing things were not as they thought or needed to think they were, with themselves. E.g. man thinks of himself as environmentally friendly, buys car he believes is sound to these principles; later finds out it does not do good mileage and will harm the environment more by excessive use of fossil fuels (ah, should’ve got electric car, he kicks self, knows that now…but he took price into account, oh dear oh dear).  Festinger would say that in order to square the man’s view of himself with his actions and their unforeseen consequences, he is going to have to find a solution.  He can’t just leave it as it is.  He’ll have to get another car, along with all the time, loss of money through part exchange and general hassle this will cause.  But he will likely endure this discomfort because he wants to stay true to the principles he has chosen for himself: it’s important to feel consistent, authentic to self, true. 

Festinger would call this trying to achieve consonance, recalibrate his internal sense of who he is, what he does, what he’ll accept.  If he can’t change the car, he’s going to have a problem, he’s going to have to find somesort of rationalisation about it.  If there’s no money to do a further change, he’ll possibly have to try and be philosophical – I have learnt my lesson here, I’ll do better research next time, this experience isn’t wasted, I’ll make sure my next car (in 10 years or whenever) is highly efficient and environmentally friendly.  In the meantime I’ll try and use this one as little as possible, and …recycle more, or something.  I am a good person, I am I am.  See the sort of thing I mean?

I am experiencing cognitive dissonance myself here, as a person was not the way I thought.  And I am having a troublesome time trying to achieve consonance about it.  My own feeling of a sort of sad subsiding into a sense that I will never know, because I think they just are not going to want to explain themselves.  That apparently I’m not worthy of explanation.  That creates one of my usual steady sinkings into a good bit of unhelpful self loathing. On the other hand – I could rationalise that I am merely allowing myself to be upset[3].  I could take a leaf out of the other person’s book, they who briefly apologise with very little explanation indeed and simply move along; knowing that if I choose to remain friends with this person it is (highly) likely (I would say) that this behaviour that upsets me will be repeated at some point in the future.  But that they have other good points that I am also taking into account.  So maybe I choose to remain friends as I really and genuinely value these points.  Let they who are sinless cast the first stone etc etc.  I’m not perfect either.  In fact, as we all know, I’m a bit of a pill most of the time. 

I could say all that, in an attempt to recalibrate.  I’m not sure if it feels true yet though. I feel like the whole situation needs more investigation.  But I don’t think the other party wants to play ball with my desire to analyse or understand.

Which brings me back to Welles.  The illusion of friendship??  Maybe some are illusory, no matter of how longstanding.  Or maybe parts are illusory.  Maybe no matter how much we try to be awake to our own preconceptions, and biases, our own wishes and casting of people around us partially into roles of saviour or sinner or martyr or gogetter…no matter how complex we try and allow for them to be, as complex as ourselves – perhaps we simply can never have a proper friendship with someone because we just do not know what they are really about.  So any or all parts of the friendship will be built around houses made on sand.  Illusion.  Pattern making filling in the blanks.  Likely erroneously.  Cause for dissonance.

And as Fry said, breaking my siege mentality leaves me saddened and quiet, and alone.  But it’s nothing I didn’t know, right?  It is highly possible I knew about this flaw (its happened before in a smaller way) but didn’t want to know it again, so allowed myself to forget, spinning myself my little tales of solidarity and sisterhood, togetherness, likemindednness.  Which were only partially true.  Maybe I was half asleep.  Foolishly.

I wish I was strong enough to be awake all the time, and to not be saddened by the actions of others when they do not turn out to be as I fondly thought.  I wish I could just say – ok, you can’t be trusted on that issue, or, you’ll always be a loose cannon where that’s concerned, though reasonable and kindly in other ways.  Like someone who’s nice when they aren’t drinking.  Or your old granddad who’s really nice apart from those really nasty inappropriate racist/homophobic comments he comes out with sometimes.  I wish I could separate people’s bad points from their good ones and yet accept the whole.  Not be surprised by either.  I suppose it’s a goal.

And in the meantime – I have some interesting character stuff to write about don’t I?  We all have people we know that we don’t understand half as well as we think we do.

The trick would then be to put the detachment hat on and actually be capable of writing about it.  Instead of feeling sad and alone and sitting here simply relating the matter slightly evasively.  I haven’t learned that trick either – though I did used to have it, so its there somewhere.  I used to be able to fictionalise anything that happened to me to be able to make sense of it.  In one way or another.  Annoyingly, I think this would take more time than I have in this case.  So these preliminary notes will have to do.  And I shall continue to sit here, confused, rather sad, and very quiet.  In a state of dissonance.[4]

[1] Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive Dissonance: 50 Years of a Classic Theory. London: Sage Publications. 
[2] I think some forms of depression are strongly linked to being in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance: you can’t make any rationalisation that feels good enough as to why things aren’t as you thought they were (or imagine they should be).  You can’t marry it up, so you remain confused, and for some people, in a state therefore of perpetual internalised self rejection…a sort of mind dysmorphic disorder (whoa – I’m making up my own helpful pyschobabble labels now!).  Just thinking aloud.
[3] One of my past partners was a master at telling me all my upsets with him were a result of this: me ‘allowing’ myself to be upset.  He was never even 10% responsible for anything that ever went wrong between us.  Couple this with a stance of ‘you mental patient, me caring psychiatrist’ and you can kind of see why that relationship didn’t make it to the truly longterm…
Try this very good link if you want to read more on the subject than I’ve had time to tell you about today.

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