We always do what we believe is correct, right? Wrong!

2013-09-30 04:55:33

By Dr. Mahesh Rajasuriya
Consultant Psychiatrist, National Hospital of Sri Lanka
Senior Lecturer, University of Colombo

A Teacher, who believes that learning at school should be student-oriented, told his class that they are going to discuss the topic of ‘Respect for Elders’. One girl jumped up and asked “but why?” The teacher, visibly shocked, asks her to explain her question further: “Why should we respect elders, Sir?” The teacher punishes the girl by asking her to write ‘We should respect our elders’ one hundred times.

A Judge, who conducts lectures on how to be more aware of factors which affect the objectiveness of the decision making process inside the head of a judge,  gave a particular judgement in courts one day. This decision, which was given favouring the defendant, was seen by most as obviously unjust. The lawyers the defendant had hired somehow happen to be the Judge’s favourite lawyers. Even her husband later mentioned this and she fiercely reacted by saying “they presented their case very well!”

The Women’s Rights Activist, who was the head of an organisation, which helped survivors of rape to litigate their abusers, faced a very difficult situation as his childhood friend’s son was accused of rape by a woman who served the accused as his Secretary. Later the woman approached the organisation against rape as she felt she needed extra help. The head of the organisation advised his staff to reject her application as “she has enough money to hire her own lawyers.”
Why do people believe or preach one thing and do another? The beliefs and the actions of this Teacher, Judge and Activist are complete opposites.
Simply incomprehensible. How can this be? Although we all are aware that this happens all the time around us, including in our own lives, we ourselves do this from time to time, if not most of the time. However, you may deny that your actions are ever inconsistent with your beliefs.

Most of the time, we simply forget to notice the inconsistency between our actions and beliefs. So we go about living our lives happily as before. Sometimes, someone or something, for an example the remark made by the husband of the Judge, make us notice this inconsistence. And then we naturally feel very uneasy. We may even feel anxious or disturbed. We may even lose our peace of mind. This uneasiness arising from being made aware of the inconsistency between one’s actions and beliefs is called ‘cognitive dissonance’, in psychology.

The teacher believes that learning happens while giving students more opportunity to guide the process, although he punishes the student for asking a very interesting question related to the topic which would have taken the discussion to a completely new level.
The Judge believes that Judges have to take extra precautions to make sure that their objectiveness is not lost during court hearings. However, she gave an unjust decision!
The Activist believes that any support should be given to victims of rape to prosecute their abusers, but rejects the rightful request of a woman to help her prosecute her perpetrator.

All of them had obvious inconsistencies between their actions and beliefs. Most likely all of them are aware of this inconsistency to some degree. Hence most of them have some degree of cognitive dissonance: feeling uneasy due to this inconsistency.
We all know no one wants to continue to feel uneasy. Hence the natural tendency is to try and resolve this inconsistency in some way or other. One works towards ‘peace of mind’ again. We try various methods to resolve this uneasiness, i.e. cognitive dissonance.

Change the awareness of the action
We may simply forget that it happened.
The Teacher might quickly forget that he punished the girl.
The Judge may quickly forget the decision she made.
The Activist may quickly forget the case file he closed.
Then they might move as they have done, all this while, as if nothing inconsistent ever happened.
Until the next time they have to perform another similar inconsistent act!

Change the belief
The Teacher may decide that his belief was not correct or practical and from now on he would start to believe that learning at school should be ‘teacher-oriented’ and not ‘student-oriented’.
The Judge may accept that a judge is entitled to make unjust decisions and should not be too bothered about objectiveness.
The Activist may start to believe that only the rapists, who are not connected to him,deserve punishment.
Now let us imagine an even more perfect outcome: The Teacher stops teaching as he learns that learning cannot be student-centred.
The Judge quits her job as she is now aware that her decisions are not always just.
The Activist may shut down his organisation since he is unable to prosecute some rapists because of his personal biases.
Well, these scenarios occur mainly in movies and novels. In real life these outcomes are rare. However, not absent. When present, they act as most powerful ways of changing lives.

Change action

" This is, by far, the commonest way people resolve their cognitive dissonance. This is widely used merely due to its convenience, as you do not need to change either your action or the belief. What is changed is only the interpretation of the action and/or belief "
The Teacher may realise that his action is inconsistent with what he believed, and somehow try to make it right, for an example promising to him that he would never repeat such action. The Judge may admit to what she had done when challenged by her husband and see if she could do something to change the decision now. The Activist may tell his staff to re-open that file and support that woman in her request.
Well, this is also not a very common occurrence. However when it happens, the person, one who resolves his/ her cognitive dissonance by changing the action, will feel much  better and achieve years of maturity and wisdom in one single action.

Change the interpretation
This is, by far, the commonest way people resolve their cognitive dissonance. This is widely used merely due to its convenience, as you do not need to change either your action or the belief. What is changed is only the interpretation of the action and/or belief.
The Teacher may tell himself that the girl has a bad character and she meant some foul meaning when she asked that question. “And this would serve her right!” He would happily continue to believe that he is a teacher committed to the cause of championing student-centered learning.

The Judge has already done it. “They presented their case very well!”And she had to go by what was presented to her, hence the decision. The Activist has also already done it. “She has enough money to hire her own lawyers.” Actually he has modified his belief slightly here. “We only support women who have financial difficulties.” However if he is challenged by pointing out that in the past his organisation has helped rich women, can you guess what would happen?
Challenging people without allowing them to settle their cognitive dissonance is a very exciting exercise, which we would address in future.

(The writer can be reached at

  Comments - 1

  • Nishantha Monday, 30 September 2013 05:42

    Great artical...explains a lot about ppl

    Reply : 0       2

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