An Email to My Social Psychology Prof

Here goes an email I dug up from my mailbox – an email I’ve written to the professor for my Social Psychology module. It was really in a spur of moment that I wrote this – I overshot the amount of time planned to revise that topic, the questions weren’t relevant to my final examinations, and I just wanted a genuine conversation with the prof to explore psychology outside of an academic subject (in the weirdest of times yes – while revising for finals).

Sadly I did not get any response – I presume it’s because she was busy or missed out on my email. But nonetheless I’ll just post it here for some food for thought!

Dear Professor XXX (shall not reveal),

I was reading about cognitive dissonance and their evolutionary benefits, and I was just wondering how beneficial cognitive dissonance really is to us, I think it would be really interesting to hear your take on this!

   The textbook mentions that CD helps us stick to “tried-and-true” options and avoid novel but risky alternatives, but many of the experiments have shown that our decisions/behaviours are often made on a somewhat arbitrary basis and CD merely helps us reduce the dissatisfaction or doubt we feel towards our decisions – the decision itself might not necessarily be the best/ most accurate one. As the textbook also mentions, a lot of times, we are rationalising our thoughts and decisions, rather than making rational decisions. So, in this sense, how should we go about interpreting our decisions/ thoughts? How do we reduce the discomfort we feel while resisting our tendencies to distort reality? (perhaps this is a really broad question so feel free to read on and I will try to elaborate more!) 

    It appears to me that in a lot of cases, when we attempt to reduce discomfort, we would adjust our cognition to our behaviours rather than keep our behaviour consistent with our cognitions – perhaps because the former is much easier most of the time. I see this as a reason why we are so susceptible to external pressure and influences – our behaviours are often shaped by our environment/peer pressure and our cognitions shift correspondingly to reduce the dissonance. What would be a good balance between adapting to our environments and keeping clear-headed, standing by some of our important principles, or finding our own interests?

Also, I am just wondering, is cognitive dissonance in some sense, our discomfort with grey areas and ambiguities? Because a lot of times, there is no clear-cut right-or-wrong/ black-or-white, but our obsession with finding the answer makes us more susceptible to CD. If we were to feel more comfortable with nuances and grey areas, would we experience CD less? 

  Lastly, a really random question that has been stuck in my mind for a while since I took psychology: do you believe that humans have free will? Psychology seems to tell us that human cognitions and behaviours are products of environmental and genetic factors. Built-in cognitive tendencies like cognitive dissonance also often make me doubt if my decisions truly reflect my thoughts and desires. I know that believing in free will has a positive impact on our mindset, but sometimes I just can’t help but feel myself drifting along with the tides and waves of life with irresistible forces from the systems and circumstances I am situated within. Have you ever had such thoughts, and how would you go about dealing with such discomfort? At this point, the question is probably way outside the scope of psychology 😅 Hope you won’t mind! 

(Welp I guess maybe she did mind this after all…)

I think learning about cognitive dissonance really made me doubt rational thinking and the idea of “being true to the self”. With cognitive dissonance, it becomes hard to tell if you made a decision because you wanted to make it, or just because you think you wanted to make it (but in fact you made it under circumstances/ external pressure). Well…. I think I am experiencing cognitive dissonance towards the concept of cognitive dissonance right now…

But the fun in psychology is perhaps that the more you understand your mind and behaviour, the more arbitrary and absurd you realise they can be. Wew.

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