Cognitive dissonance is that uneasy realization that the world you want and the world you have are two different things. Many people (I include myself in this) find a solution in dissonance reduction, that is, rather than merely accepting the new reality, they look for another way to keep as much of the old as possible. They patch up the hole with a solution that may or may not have any founding in reality, but provides a safe feeling of resolution.
In listening to a recent episode of This American Life (“No Place Like Home”), I was struck by a clear (and entertaining) example of cognitive dissonance in the prologue. Before you go further, take the eight minutes necessary to listen to it .
In the prologue, Ken Lima-Cuelho tells Ira about a famous, decades-old city pride campaign in Calgary, Canada, and specifically the song (“Hello Calgary“) that went with it. Edmonton (to the north) called itself “The City of Champions,” which repeatedly got under the skin of Calgarians. The Calgary pride campaign song, however, extolled the beauty of the region and helped to lift their spirits. They loved it, sang it, and celebrated it; it was theirs.
After a minute of playing the campaign song, Ira decides to shatter Ken’s reality. “Now Ken, I want to play you something else. And I have feeling you haven’ t heard this.”
He then proceeds to play another version of the same song, but this time it’s about Milwaukee. Worse yet, it turns out to be the original song. Ken’s response is priceless.
“Milwaukee? What are you…really?” When the lyrics get to “You’re the best hometown I know,” Ken breaks in with, “Woah, Woah, Woah, how can there be two best hometowns I know? That can’t be right?”
It is at this point that Ken’s dissonance reduction begins to set in and he attempts to salvage the song’s special place for Calgary. “I’m glad they didn’t use the same woman, though. That would have been really bad.”
He’s now begun negotiating with reality. Just so as long as the same woman isn’t used, it’s still theirs, but it is at this point that Ira delivers more bad news.
“Let me play you, um, something else now.” We’re now treated to other versions of the song for different cities, but this time featuring the same woman.
Now baffled, Ken laughs. “To me this is like finding out that your childhood teddy bear was owned by three other people.”
Dissonance reduction sets in again and Ken finds one more way to salvage this fond memory after all.
“There isn’t a ‘Hello Edmonton,’ is there?”
“Nah, there isn’t,” Ira assures him.
The prologue, of course, is not intended to get at cognitive dissonance, but it struck me as a great way to demonstrate its power. The reality that I can’t ignore is that we humans are capable of turning just about anything to our favor despite the evidence. We are masters of dissonance reduction and will go to great lengths to avoid the world we have, even on issues that are ultimately just nostalgic.
Now just imagine how far we’re really willing to go on the big questions of life.