Being in two minds usually refers to occasions when we struggle to make up our minds about choices in front of us, like whether to have the healthy option for lunch or indulge one last time before we begin that diet tomorrow. One could also use the expression for when one is not able to decide on the truth of two, apparently, mutually exclusive propositions. A further meaning could be that which is closer to what might be called cognitive dissonance. This is the ability to hold two contradictory views at the same time, such as believing in ecologically sound living whilst regarding wind turbines as useless, ugly and pointless blots on the landscape. To what degree then is this state of mind common and does it suggest that all of us are not entirely as rational we would like to think?
Leon Festinger was the first psychologist to propose the theory of cognitive dissonance. He argued that there is a general tendency in humans to achieve a coherent state of mind with regard to our beliefs and attitudes. When we encounter a situation in which we appear to hold conflicting views, we typically rationalize one part in order to restore internal harmony and dispose of the unpleasant feeling which disharmony normally produces. A student might for example put up with the discomfort of the challenges of a particular subject by telling themselves that even though they might not see the immediate value of it, they have been told that it will enhance their employability in the future. Therefore holding the views that this subject is both useless but ultimately useful.
Cognitive dissonance theory proposes three basic ways of resolving the discomfort of cognitive disharmony.
Firstly, one can deliberately change one of the attitudes, behaviours or beliefs which cause the dissonance. If one is constantly uncomfortable about the tension between the pleasure of smoking and the latter’s potential health risks, one can either decide that many people smoke all their lives and suffer very few damaging health effects as a result; or one can simply give up smoking.
Secondly, one can investigate the sources of the dissonance and acquire further knowledge which then might provide information to resolve the dissonance or help one to decide which aspect of our attitudes, behaviour or beliefs to change. One could for instance thoroughly research the data on smoking related illnesses and then decide on the basis of that added information what to do next.
Thirdly, one could make the decision to place more or less importance on one of the two sources of dissonance. Basically one actively decides that one aspect of the dissonance is over exaggerated or given undue weight, by reducing its significance one lessens the acuteness of the feeling of dissonance. Thus one could rationalize the anxiety about smoking by adopting the view that immediate pleasures are of more importance than future possible problems arising out of indulging in them.
To what degree is cognitive dissonance a genuine problem to be addressed? Clearly on the practical level there are genuine difficulties in operating on the basis that two mutually exclusive statements are both true. A shopkeeper who believes that two plus two is four, but sometimes makes thirteen will hardly have many customers left once the inconsistency of his accounting has become common knowledge. However, I wonder whether there are times when we might not do better to embrace cognitive dissonance and the apparent irrationality it seems to imply; and recognize that life is often for too rich and complicated to have it all worked out neatly and complete cognitive assonance and therefore to learn to live with all our beautiful contradictions.