When someone is presented with inputs that are contrary to their worldview, or situations in which they must behave in a manner that is contrary to their worldview, they experience "cognitive dissonance." The theory was first advanced by Leon Festinger.

There are two ways to deal with this:

  1. Focus only on consistent cognitions. In order to abate the dissonance, the individual rationalizes. They often focus exclusively on facts, logic, or experience which reinforces their existing worldview, and the inconsistent cognitions are dismissed altogether.
  2. Reducing the number of inconsistent cognitions. The affected person modifies their worldview to remove the inconsistent cognitions.

Authoritarian societies tend to work with whatever "official version" of reality is preferred- thus unless information is carefully controlled, cognitive dissonance becomes a way of life.

The concept of blackwhite is a response to a society in which contradiction is the primary mode of operation. It is a means of avoiding cognitive dissonance by submitting to authority- whatever the authority says is correct and always has been, simply because the implications of thinking otherwise are difficult to deal with from an individual perspective.

This is a fancy, somewhat scientific way of describing the ever-ongoing process of realizing you've been stupid. Everybody does it. Everybody, at least most of the time, deals with it.

Except, of course, for the guys standing in the corner mumbling, "Got to adjust my worldview and get rid of this cognitive dissonance that's been bothering me..." Unfortunately, the guy who doesn't know the big words is the guy who has to admit, "Damn, dude. That was stupid of me." Does this latter, more emotionally potent and direct method of defining our difficulties give the Second Guy a better chance at reform? Time will tell....duh duh duuuuun...
Cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant state that occurs when we notice discrepancies between our attitudes or between our attitudes and behaviour.

Dissonance often occurs in situations involving induced compliance - ones in which we are induced by external factors to say or do things that are inconsistent with our true attitudes.

In such situations, attitude change is maximum when we have reasons that are barely sufficient to get us to engage in attitude-discrepant behaviour. Stronger reasons (or larger rewards) produce less attitude change - the less leads to more effect.

Inducing individuals to advocate certain attitudes or behaviours and then reminding them of their hypocrisy - the fact that they haven't always behaved in ways consistent with those views - can be a powerful tool for inducing dissonance and thus promoting benificial changes in behaviour.

Dissonance appears to be a universal aspect of social thought, but the conditions under which it occurs and the tactics individuals choose to reduce it appear to be influenced by cultural factors.

I was up at Elizabeth's the other night. We'd had a nice dinner - lots of good-for-you things like sauteed spinach with garlic, roasted beets, wine-poached chicken, brown rice. She's pregnant and trying to watch her diet, trying to stuff as many nutrients as she can into each meal. All of us felt full but not too. For dessert I was expecting something like a medley of summer melon balls or a smalll ambrosia salad.

Instead, Bit went to the downstairs coffin freezer and brought up a couple of pints of Haagen Dazs. Butter pecan and chocolate chip cookie dough. She passed around some spoons and we all shared it as though we were partaking in the Eucharist.

Hey Ash, Bit confided, there's a gas station over in Wilder, Idaho that's selling these things - two pints for 5 bucks. You oughta go.

I thought this was an excellent idea, so yesterday I made the half-hour drive to this little gas station to load up on cheap and good ice cream. I passed fields of cows and horses, drove slowly, watched all the brand-new calves and foals tottering across the pastures. I saw crop dusters and quail, pheasants, a beaver. A lone skydiver. I wished I had the courage to skydive and daydreamed about trying it one day.

I got to the store right around five o' clock - quitting time for most of the local laborers and farmers. It was a hot day, and the frigid conditioned air startled me with a kiss as I walked into the quiet store. There was a line at the register, so I wandered back to the freezer section to check out the selection of ice cream. It was slightly picked over, but I managed to find exactly what I wanted: rocky road, dulce du leche, rum raisin, and mint chocolate chip. I piled all the pints into my arms and got in line. My hands and arms soon succumbed to near-frostbite, so I set the pints down on the cooler next to the cash register. I stood and waited.

Suddenly I noticed the man in front of me.


I smelled him before I really saw him. He was redolent of a day's hard labor, rich and fragrant with the dark scents of clean sweat and good dirt. He was drenched in pheremones. I looked around for the source of that most good of good smells, and he was standing right in front of me - t-shirt smudged with dirt, jeans broken in just so. He looked to be twenty-five or so; I've never been good at pinpointing age. I casually leaned toward the register to steal a glimpse of his face. He was standing still, blue eyes half-closed in the sensual chill of the air conditioning, enjoying this oasis of cool. He didn't seem to notice me.

Cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant state that occurs when we notice discrepancies between our attitudes or between our attitudes and behaviour.

He was tall. Barefoot, I'm six feet even, so this guy had to be at least 6'3. Long arms, golden-tan and solid and defined by manual labor, by outdoor work done under bright desert skies. His hair was lightened by the sun and clipped short at his nape. The hair there was silver-blonde, downy, his neck-skin pink and new and soft-looking. I wanted to touch his neck. It was an overwhelming urge; I had to put my hands into my pockets and take a deep breath.

One hand was by his side, wrapped around a sweating longneck bottle of Budweiser. His fingers were long. The back of his hand was lightly furred with fine blonde hair. His nails were a little dirty, a little ragged. Working hands.

Dissonance often occurs in situations involving induced compliance - ones in which we are induced by external factors to say or do things that are inconsistent with our true attitudes.

He'd removed his baseball cap and was idly twisting it around in one of his calloused dusty hands. I imagined he'd done that in deference to his mother's old advice: Always take off your hat indoors, son. It's polite. His shoulders were broad, straining his thin t-shirt just at my eye level. Again I inhaled that best of good scents and let my gaze travel down his well-defined back. The jeans were filled quite nicely. Not too tight. Work jeans, perfectly full of round ass and long strong legs. His work boots were crusted with dirt, with the leftovers of a day working in the killingly hot desert sun.

Someone from the other end of the store called out, Jesse! I watched my guy turn (by now he was my guy) toward that voice, caught him in full profile, watched his tanned features crinkle into a golden network of genial fissures. He had a lovely profile. Hey, Rico! He left his place in line and walked over to greet his friend. My guy hugged Rico, a spontaneous and manly affair consisting of a solid back-thump and a shared flurry of greetings. They began conversing in Spanish. I tuned out what they were saying and I watched my guy for a moment. This tide of sensations kept washing over me, strange and somehow familiar. Warm. Welcome.

I was suddenly thirsty.

I watched this Jesse, this corn-fed young man, talking to his friend in a language I do not understand. He was certainly younger than I am and certainly strong enough to pick me up and carry me to his pickup truck. Certainly healthy, smelling of good sweat and clean dirt. Very healthy. Very.

When someone is presented with inputs that are contrary to their worldview, or situations in which they must behave in a manner that is contrary to their worldview, they experience "cognitive dissonance."


I was married for five years. Technically still am. I've never lived in a place like this, a place so isolated that entire weeks can pass between being with my family and seeing anyone new. My social circle is tight and protective. I've been to malls twice in the past six months. I don't get out much, and I don't see many people, many men. I certainly don't smell them.

When I got married, some invisible internal switch shifted to the "off" position. I stopped looking, learned to ignore men's glances, men's eyes, men's scents. My husband was the only one I wanted to see, to smell, to taste, to touch. His hands were the only ones my body needed. It took a small amount of will power, of training, but in a shockingly short period of time my husband became my entire sensual world. It's been that way until yesterday.

In such situations, attitude change is maximum when we have reasons that are barely sufficient to get us to engage in attitude-discrepant behaviour.

Here I was in this little desert convenience store watching this guy. And it occured to me in a rush: cognitive dissonance.

It's dissonance because it blew right through my supposedly inviolable self-created secret garden. It's dissonance because it jarred me into a new reality governed by new rules. It's dissonance because a scent other than my husband's made me feel weak and languid and warm in many places I haven't felt warm in quite a while. It's dissonance because my fingers tingled to touch that blonde fur at the nape of that neck. It's dissonance because it was the first time in years that I responded viscerally to another body, another scent, another set of hands.


So I watched Jesse, my guy, wrap up the pleasantries with Rico and stride back to a place in line behind me. Oh, no, I said, and I had trouble looking into his kind eyes. You were here first.

He gave me a half-smile and put his hat back on. Nome, s'ok. It feels good in here. I smiled back, lowered my eyes, half-hoped he couldn't read my thoughts. I turned around, gathered my ice cream, paid. I turned to Jesse one last time, surreptitiously inhaled his clean-sweat scent.

Yeah, it feels really good in here, I exhaled. Have a good one. He smiled again, a broad and reckless grin, an unselfconscious smile peculiar to young, good-natured men who spend their days working in dirt under hot desert suns. His eyes framed by wrinkles carved by a million smiles, his teeth white and straight. He touched the brim of his hat sweetly, charmingly. You too, ma'am. Stay cool.

I floated out of the store into the shimmering evening heat clutching my bag of ice cream. I didn't even care that he'd called me ma'am, that my days in the arms of young farm boys are probably over.

I started my car, enveloped in a hazy, languid feeling. I realized that this is part of what freedom is about. I'm free to thirst again.

Saying goodbye to my husband means a lot of things, some of them painful, some of them difficult. But it also means saying goodbye to the tyranny of cognitive dissonance. It means saying hello to a set of possibilities I thought were gone forever.

Hello, Jesse. Hello.

The classical experiment in cognitive dissonance involves getting participants to do a boring and meaningless task, and then to try and convince someone (in fact a member of the experimenting team) that the task was in fact interesting. The participants are paid either a token amount, a larger amount or no money. Later they are asked about their opinions of the task.

People who were paid the large amount have an obvious external justification for their actions (the action is describing the task as interesting, not merely doing it), and they will have little dissonance in telling you that it was boring. Those paid little have a lower external justification, and so are forced to internalise it and conclude that the task was in fact interesting.

Hence the cognitive dissonance method for dating involves picking people you'd want to date and making them write a short essay on why they want to go out with you, for a very low fee. Come back to them a few days later and they should have internalised their beliefs and will want to go out with you.

One Sunday, my doorbell rang. My arthritis was particularly painful that morning, so it took me a few minutes to get to the door. When I opened it, he introduced himself as Davy. He wore a black suit, shiny shoes, and a Rolex, topped off with a headful of gelled hair.

"May I come in?"

Of course he could. I can't really explain why – I suppose I'd never seen a man with black eyes before – but I opened the door right away. He glided into the living room and sat on the couch, opening his briefcase.

"I'll try to be brief. I represent Fresh Start, Incorporated. We're a small company specializing in volition transplant."

"I've heard of you."

"I'm sure you have. But like most people, you probably don't know exactly what we do.  Fresh Start's neurosurgeons have the ability to exchange your consciousness – your will, your memory, everything that makes you you – with that of another consenting adult."

I frowned. "Why would I want to do that?"

"Our best customers come from your age group, sir. Many in their golden years decide to exchange their bodies for those of younger men or women."

Of course. I should have thought of that. I was having a few problems myself. The arthritis was getting pretty bad, and according to my doctor, I was looking at death by lung cancer in a few years. "I need to think. Let me call you in a couple of days."

He thanked me and left.

I reread the brochures he gave me over and over. Watched the informational video twice. The procedure only took a few hours, and had no recovery time. They provided excellent "reentry services": basically, Fresh Start would guarantee that my new body didn't "catch your family, friends, or coworkers off guard." It looked foolproof.

Was I too hasty? I only know that my eyes skimmed over some fine print, and perhaps flitted across a few warnings too quickly. I know the brochures inspired powerful emotions in me, not least of all hope, which may have stifled my reason. I know that I was on the phone with Davy just two days later, telling him I wanted to do it.

The next day, he showed up in my driveway in a black van. I got in, and we drove to Fresh Start together. It was a tall building, with mirrored windows so that no one could see inside. We entered, walked to the operating room. I was put under anesthesia, and the transplant was performed.

I awoke in a padded cell, wearing a straitjacket. There was a window on the far wall. A shutter rose, and I saw Davy standing behind it. He raised a microphone to his mouth. His normally calm brow was furrowed. The loudspeaker chirped, "something went wrong."

Then, from the depths of my mind, I heard a thought that wasn't mine. A whisper: "This is my brain. Get out!" And then wave after wave of terror, as we struggled for control.

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