Conflicts have been a part of our collective existence since the dawn of humanity. However, the conflicts that are the most difficult to tackle with are those that we fight within ourselves. After all, disengaging ourselves in a conflict with others is easy, but when we find it difficult to agree with some of our own actions or behaviours, it is particularly unnerving because we can never detach ourselves from such a conflict.
The most common way in which we develop such an internal conflict is when our beliefs or attitudes are brought into question by behaviours, whether our own, or whether demonstrated by the environment. This psychological phenomenon is known as cognitive dissonance, and explains to a great degree why it is so difficult to change the existing beliefs and opinions of people. Ideally, all human beings seek behaviours or actions to be in tandem with their beliefs about the world, and strive to maintain this state of psychological harmony. This is known as the principle of cognitive consistency. To reduce dissonance, therefore, one adopts several techniques.
Consider the technique of avoidance, where the person will develop an arrangement whereby he will distance himself from any exhibiting behaviours or instances that conflict with his internal beliefs. For instance, consider a coach who truly believes women cannot play cricket. Against his will, he has been forced to induct women into training because of a gender-neutral policy adopted by the school. Following this, he finds that a girl is the best performer in his batch. He experiences severe cognitive dissonance. To restore his state of psychological harmony and preserve his stereotypical belief, he can go as far as to demand a delegation of responsibility so he does not have to come in contact with girls any longer, or even ask for a transfer from this branch of the school.
Otherwise, this coach could choose to remain in denial, another technique used to dispel dissonance. He could refuse to believe this has anything to do with women being equally competent in cricket, and shrug it off as an exception. In most scenarios, people adopt these methods to deal with dissonance. Remember all those instances that you just could not convince an elder family member or school peer that members of all religions have the ability to be compassionate, or tell them there is not much difference between a Brahmin and a Vaishya or Shudra. Even if they see real life instances, or behavioural proof that is opposed to such beliefs, they will either directedly shy away from discussing this instance, avoid it from propping in conversation, or deny it outrightly.
Another method still that we use is by changing the importance we attribute to our cognition, i.e. our beliefs and attitudes and dissonant instances. We can either cite new information that outweighs originally dissonant instances, for instance, a casteist person can publicise and emphasise an instance where a Brahmin performed better academically than members of other castes to ignore the instance where a Shudra topped in his batch. Contrarily, this person can disregard the importance of caste equality and its demonstrative instance altogether.
Theorists have noted that people tend who experience dissonance would go to absolutely any extent to defend their existing beliefs. Probing into this concept tells us how difficult it is to reform social beliefs, especially ones that are widespread and stereotypical. Of course, there is one other way in which we can deal with cognitive dissonance: change.
The sexist coach could actually accept this as proof that women are as capable as men. The elder family member could understand that people are good and bad, compassionate and indifferent. Their religion does not determine their nature. The casteist person could realize the frailty of the caste system as a social construct, and its hindrance in establishing a society of equals. They could all admit that the beliefs they held are not necessarily the inviolable truth.
All of us at different junctures in our life will face situations where we will have to pick a bone with ourselves, challenge something within us, and no matter how tough it is, we should strive to align our beliefs the closest that it can to what is right. Of course, conceptions of right and wrong in themselves are problematic, but we must keep in mind we are as likely to be wrong as to be right.
– Contributed by Tinka
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