Jun 19, 2018

Tells for Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance (CD) is "the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values." Cartoonist turned political commentator Scott Adams has taken our understanding of this phenomenon further by identifying certain "tells" (i.e. signs) for when a person is in CD. The point is that when a person is experiencing this form of mind strain, he or she will use predictably irrational methods to relieve it.

The following is my curated list of CD tells. Several originate with Adams, who published his own list in 2015. Many have to do with President Donald Trump as his election and presidency have been a huge CD trigger for many.

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The Absurd Absolute (Adams). A type of "straw man" attack, this counter takes your argument and restates it as an absolute, often using words such as "always" or "never," so that it is easier to argue against. Per Adams, this tell often includes sarcasm and starts with the word "so." Example: You make an argument in favor of one of President Trump's decisions. They respond, "So what you're saying is Trump is always right."

The Ad Hominem. This one is actually a logical fallacy, but it is also sure-fire sign of CD. You articulate a rational point, and they respond by attacking you or the person you are defending. Example: You cite President Trump's three greatest, measurable achievements. They respond, "He has also achieved being the most racist a-hole ever to occupy the White House."

Juvenile Reversion. When kids and teens are losing an argument, they fight back with name-calling, curse words and low-brow humor. When adults experience CD, they sometimes revert to this behavior. Example: In response to President Trump's historic summit with Kim Jung Un in Singapore, a friend and ardent Trump hater sent me a doctored video of Kim touching Trump's back to stick a crude drawing of a penis to his suit jacket.

The Laundry List (Adams). In the consumer-products world, we are often presented with what I call "Swiss Army products." These are products that do more than two or three things. No one thing is strong enough to interest consumers, but the belief is that the sum of the parts will yield a successful whole. A similar type of thinking is behind this tell. Because no one point is strong enough to counter the argument presented, the person strings together more than two or three things in the hopes it will yield a convincing whole.

Too Many Explanations (Adams). When people offer multiple, divergent theories to explain away something that challenges their worldview, they are likely experiencing CD. It's an attempt to use quantity (many possible answers) to relieve the mental stress of a lack of quality (none of them good). Example: CNN once put together 24 different theories (what Adams called a "cognitive dissonance cluster bomb") to explain how Donald Trump could possibly defeat Hillary Clinton to become president.

Word Salad (Adams). A jumble of partial thoughts that is hard to follow or understand. The person is usually trying to fit multiple, emotional points into a single paragraph, but CD has short-circuited their capacity for coherence.

The Zero-Calorie Reply. When people realize they have to concede your point, this can often trigger CD. They know they are smarter than you, yet somehow you have outmaneuvered them! To save their ego, they conclude that they must just be exasperated with you. The tell for this is a response completely lacking in any substance. It often involves emojis or other cutesy Internet shorthand. Example: "OK, Jordan. LOL."