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Cognitive Dissonance Mashup: David Allen (GTD), Gary Marcus (Kluge), Martin Seligman (Authentic Happiness)

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I really like David Allen’s Getting Things Done. While he discusses long-term (50,000-foot) goals, he focuses on the near-term panic-causing stressors of an over-demanding life first. Someone who is just plain stressed out isn’t going to start thinking about their life vision. He clearly understands the needs of and stresses on the human brain. This (at least in my lay opinion) is the power of cognitive behavioral therapy as opposed to psychoanalysis: who cares about what happened years ago if you’re just nervous/sad/pissed about what is happening now.

David Allen likes to say that psychologists use the term cognitive dissonance to refer to (for example) when you want to go to the movies but you aren’t there yet. While psychologists do use this term, that’s not what they’re talking about. Gary Marcus’ Kluge discusses the misuse of the term “cognitive dissonance” (albeit as a footnote):

The term cognitive dissonance has crossed over into popular culture, but its proper meaning hasn’t. People use it informally to refer to any situation that’s disturbing or unexpected. (“Dude, when he finds out we crashed his mother’s car, he’s going to be feeling some major cognitive dissonance.”) The original use of the term refers to something less obvious, but far more interesting: the tension we feel when we realize (however dimly) that two or more of our beliefs are in conflict.

So: wanting to go to the movies and not being there yet isn’t a cognitive dissonance (at least not in the psychological sense). Your brain can quite comfortably hold the thoughts that 1) “I want to be at the movies”, and 2) “I am not at the movies” quite well. In fact, if you didn’t have the 2nd thought, you probably wouldn’t have the first—or is it the other way around? I don’t doubt that David Allen is a victim of the lay definition. However, I wonder how many people (myself included) have inferred the wrong meaning from his discussion. Time to move on.

This got me wondering about why cognitive dissonance has a negative connotation. I believe that the human brain has an ability or need to utilize reason. And when two inconsistent thoughts are held at the same time, our internal computer raises an exception and says that one of these thoughts contradicts the other. OK: so consistency is good.

However, Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness talks about Learned Optimism. Optimistic people are happier. They have the ability to partition their mind when bad things happen. Yet they view good things as pervasive. (They also perceive good events as permanent and bad events as temporary.) OK: so inconsistency is good. You’ll be happier when you can partition your brain (sometimes) to relegate a bad event to one sphere of your life. You don’t want to infer a pattern.

So, wouldn’t the ability to partition your mind facilitate many cognitive dissonances? Isn’t the elimination of cognitive dissonance a theme of cognitive behavioral therapy (which is supposed to alleviate mental illness)? Do we have two distinct, separate realms of psychology here? Should we only eliminate the cognitive dissonance of positive events but maintain a partitioning of negative events?

I can resolve all these thoughts with one conclusion: I must be a pessimist.

No: The fact that holding the thoughts—1) cognitive dissonance is a bad thing and 2) partitioning of thinking is a good thing—being a cognitive dissonance was not lost on me.

Written by PoojanWagh

June 17th, 2009 at 11:52 pm

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