Prejudice: The social animal on social media (7)

Personifications of social media sites

[Part 7 of 9: The Social Animal on Social Media, Part 1,
Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 8Part 9]

When you have an intact, healthy sense of worth, you value other people. You know who you are, which means you can accept others as they are. When you are not sure that who you are is good enough, you will do your darndest to prove that you are better than someone else.  – Iyanla Vanzant

We have all experienced prejudice, or been prejudice towards someone else at some point in our lives. Social psychologist Elliot Aronson, in The Social Animal, defines prejudice as:

A hostile or negative attitude towards a distinguishable group of people on the basis of generalisation derived from faulty or incomplete information.

Prejudice behaviour can be based on gender, race, sexuality, religion, class, location, looks, intelligence, and so on. The list is a long one.

Spiritual life coach Iyanla Vanzant said on Supersoul Sunday that prejudice – she was talking in particular about racism – is a form of dishonesty, and has in the US historically taken the form of : I am superior because I said so. And even today, sections of US society still function on some dishonest assumptions. If certain groups of people look and behave differently, then they are inferior and deserve less. Vanzant said that the US must have a conversation about this dishonesty and find a different way of living together, otherwise more tragic acts of violence will occur.

Subtle prejudice

We all like to think we are educated and thus, we know that prejudice is wrong. However, Aronson says that sometimes we fool ourselves and behave in a prejudice manner even though we don’t believe we do. We engage in subtle prejudice. For example, when people deny that racial or sexual discrimination continues to be a problem, and behave antagonistically towards any group which encourages conversation around these discriminations.

Men may behave in what they deem to be chivalrous manner, and provide protection and affection to women which really is just prejudice. They are judging women to be weaker and crossing boundaries. This behaviour is not chivalrous, it is just patronising. It is benevolent sexism.

Aronson’s research shows that people will engage in prejudice behaviour if they can deny it. Otherwise, they may try to justify their words and behaviour. For example, citing the Bible and referring to family values instead of acknowledging their prejudice towards people who are gay or bisexual.


Stereotypes facilitate prejudice and deny someone their right to be seen as a unique individual with their own positive or negative traits. Instead, we attribute characteristics and we self-attribute characteristics negatively and positively.

Apparently, this is left over from our decision making abilities back when we were living in tribes. We saw very few outsiders and when we did, we immediately had to decide if someone was friend or foe. So, we used stereotypes as shorthand to categorise the people we meet and imply lots of information about them.

Because, stereotypes encapsulate a lot of information and are a handy short cut when communicating, they are regularly used and new ones created today by mass media.

Think how the media normally describes: the single mum, the banker, asylum seekersthe WAG, or how Islam and Muslims has been confused, simplified and represented by the press since since 9/11.

Research shows that thanks to advertising and TV women are still taught to feel that they are less important than men, and behave in silly ways.

We tell stories about others and about ourselves to encapsulate information, which can be negative like stereotypes, or they may be just a way of identifying ourselves with labels or things that we do. For example, I am: female, computer scientist, yogini, mum, cat lover. These are our social identities.

However, like stereotypes, social identities can be used negatively. And, then once we believe something about someone or about ourselves, we take that as truth, as reality. For our beliefs create our reality.

Causes of prejudice

Evolutionary psychologists believe that we are basically predisposed to favour our own tribe family, culture, and to fear outsiders. However, as the film Zootopia so aptly demonstrates, if we all just decide to believe that we are biologically programmed to behave a certain way, then nothing will ever change.

We have to take responsibility for our prejudices.

Aronson has a list of reasons as to why people are prejudice:

  1. Economic and competitive: If resources are scarce and people are competing for the spoils then this will breeds prejudice. One example is how Chinese immigrants were treated very badly during the Californian Gold Rush and railway construction.
  2. Displaced aggression: If people feel that they have been treated badly, then they will seek to retaliate and blame others. Like Hitler’s horrific behaviour towards Jewish people, blaming them for World War I.
  3. Maintenance of self-image: It is easier to live with ourselves if we think of other people as sub-human – like the slave trade.
  4. Dispositional prejudice: some people are prejudice towards others because they have learnt that from their parents and/or it is prevalent in the culture within which they live. When this is so entrenched, it is difficult to find another way of thinking.
  5. Comformity: People are prejudice because it is a social norm and everyone behaves the same way. We are conformists for so many reasons.

Prejudice on social media

Prejudice online is not new. Even as early as 1995, feminist Jude Milhon was urging women to toughen up online when faced with bullies and abuse.

In this series we have seen that social media facilitates aggression and hatred. People will conform and only say what they think others want to hear online. Or, they will find liked minded people in order to vent their anger or justify their behaviour.

It is very easy in a tweet to encapsulate an argument and misrepresent what someone has or hasn’t said in order to prove a point. This can stir up emotion and because people respond more readily to information which causes a reaction, this can quite easily escalate towards aggression, argument, and all the other bad behaviour we witness online.

However, not all is lost, social media can be used for change because people reach out and support one another more easily than they could do in the real world, crossing groups and providing inter-group support.

Reducing prejudice

Aronson says that if you engineer society to facilitate inter-group support – if you set up different groups of people so that they have equal status and equal contact between them, then prejudice is automatically reduced. This is because regular exposure to the groups of people you might have prejudice towards reduces the dissonance of beliefs you may hold. And, a proper mixture of people reduces the need for anyone to reach for their social identity and band together. Interdependence forces people to work together and get to know people.

Other research has show that if we reduce competition in class and make winning a dysfunctional activity, kids learn to work co-operatively, instead of operating a zero sum approach to life.

Only by getting to know people do we learn to empathise with them and empathy is key. We learn empathy and we can teach empathy. However, we can’t just wait for the next generation, as Iyanla Vanzant said, we need to be honest about the dishonesty behind prejudice and we need to question the beliefs we hold in order to discover truth. We need honest, empathetic conversation. Once we do, we will be better equipped to advocate the next generation into a more equal world, one without prejudice.

Part 8

Yoga lessons: More Bikram wisdom

the 26 Bikram yoga poses

I sometimes wonder if, when someone found Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras after it had fallen into obscurity, did they think: What on earth is he on about? Which is what I have often thought when I am in the studio following the script in Bikram yoga, until I listen with focus and make an adjustment and then I think: Ah, that’s what it means. Consequently, I am beginning to think that Bikram Choudhury is a genius.

Here are my latest Bikram observations which I am taking off the mat to make positive changes one day at a time.

Practice, practice, practice

If you want to get good at something, you practice everyday. If you learn the piano you systematically practice scales in order to get them right. And, it is the same with Bikram, each day I practice the same sequence of asanas and each day I get better at them. Some days I learn something new about being in that pose and I feel different. Some days I don’t feel that I have learnt anything at all, and that is fine too. Overall though, I am achieving results. I am getting stronger legs and a stronger core. I sleep better. I feel better and my anxiety levels are going down.

On top of this practising, when I come out of Bikram, I tend to choose healthier food, I drink less alcohol and caffeine because my body doesn’t always want them. I am happily surprising myself with my choices.

Where else though could I practice more consistently to see the results I feel would improve my life?

I have everything I need

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.~ Rumi

I have tight hips and so I thought that I needed to practice extra hip-openers to get more open hips. However, practising has made me realise that there are enough hip-openers in the Bikram sequence – Vrksasana (Tree pose) and Trikanasana (Triangle pose) spring to mind. But, all standing poses, twists and backbends are hip openers. So, each day because I was thinking I had to do extras I wasn’t paying attention to what the poses were doing for me. I am doing enough. The sequence gives me everything I need.

In the studio, I have space on my mat, and someone guiding me through 90 minutes of asanas reciting the script with a group of like-minded people are around me inspiring and doing the same as me. Sometimes, I might think I need more space, or more light, or might heat, or less chatter. But I don’t really. I just need to let go of what I think I need and focus on what I have.

And, this is the same outside the studio, often I think I need to buy one more book or listen to one more lecture, or do one more course to achieve what it is I want. However, when I focus on what I have already done, or what I have already listened to or read, perhaps I already have everything I need to achieve what I want, I just haven’t understood that yet.

Being present

One of the teachers said to me that the script was a mantra which is really an amazing way of looking at it. She is so right. I thought a mantra was a short phrase like Om,  which it can be. But, a mantra is also a sacred thing. It is an instrument of thought to focus the mind.

So, the script as a mantra helps me to focus my mind. Sometimes when I let go of the focus my mind wanders and when I look up I find that I am holding the wrong pose or drinking water and I am not in synch with the rest of the class. This is nothing to feel bad or wrong about. It just means that I am not getting as much as could out of the present moment because I am elsewhere.

So, when I return my mind back to the script, I am doing what I came to do. I am relaxing my body and mind by engaging in the present and working hard.  Also, when I am focused, I don’t need anything to be any different.  I don’t need anyone to behave any differently, or for it to be hotter or colder or less humid. It just is. I am working with this present moment and I am in the flow: The place where we find happiness and where we feel most alive.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise so I want to change myself. ~ Rumi

I have blogged before about staying on my mat and not wishing for things to be different. It occurred to me the other day that when I get annoyed on the mat or off the mat with people – it is always a reflection of myself- and then I read this Iyanla Vanzant’s post on Facebook:

We all have somebody in our lives who has the uncanny ability to push our buttons. We think it is the other person. Surprise, surprise! The problem doesn’t lie in the other person, it lies in us! No one can push our buttons unless the buttons are connected. Detach whatever fear, guilt, shame, or anger we have attached to the issue and people will be unable to push us.

Iyanla Vanzant, Facebook post 23/4/16

And, after thinking about the above, I got chatting to a yoga friend who was telling me that she doesn’t try to do the poses which she might fall out of in case she disturbs someone else. And, then another yogi said that she gets annoyed when people don’t attempt poses properly near her because it puts her off doing her poses properly.

Often we look to others to change their behaviour so that we can change ourselves. But, as Iyanla said, other people are a mirror of ourselves, and so if someone is or isn’t doing something which affects us then it is really us who are affecting ourselves. We have handed over that power to someone else instead of digging deep and owning our own abilities. We need to be the change we want to see.

And, this is the same in life: Our suffering doesn’t help anyone who is suffering. Our shame, guilt, fear, self-consciousness does not free anyone else least of all ourselves. Only empathy and love can do that. However, we can only give love and empathy to others if we first give love and empathy to ourselves. Instead of us mirroring others, let us be the change we want see too, and then the mirror of others will give us what we want to see.

Refilling the cup


I used to think that I couldn’t take 90 minutes out of my day to take care of my body. I had so much to do. It was such a false economy. I have so much more time and energy to live my life after a yoga session. I am fitter and healthier and happier.

Bikram yoga might look like a bendy, sweaty carry on in a mirrored room far removed from mystical yogic meditation, but it is one and the same. It is a moving meditation which exercises mind and body in a way I am sure even Pantajali would appreciate if he was around today.

I am so grateful I found it when I did. Namaste.

Aggression: The social animal on social media (6)

Personifications of social media sites

[Part 6 of 9: The Social Animal on Social Media, Part 1,
Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5Part 7, Part 8Part 9]

Social psychologist expert, Elliot Aronson, in his classic textbook, The Social Animal classifies aggressive action into two categories:

  • Intentional aggression is when someone uses aggression as a means to an end, like the defense in a rugby or football team. They go in first and foremost to stop the other team from scoring, but if someone gets hurt, well that’s life.
  • Hostile aggression is when someone intends to cause pain and injury because they can. They are doing it for badness, as my mother used to say.

Aronson lists the many causes of aggression such as chemical or neurological; alcohol, which lowers peoples’ inhibitions leading them to behave more aggressively; pain and discomfort; frustration; feeling rejection or exclusion by peers – we only have to look at the long list of school shootings in the US to see the tragedies which have occurred when students feel socially excluded.

Sadly, we also learn aggression from mass media and video games. Repeated exposure to violent TV programs and news reports makes us numb to violence and aggressive behaviour, and research has shown that films which contain pornography and violence against women directly increase violence and aggressive behaviour towards women. TV and films of all kinds normalise aggression and violence. This is in part because our culture seems to celebrate aggression.

The aggression myth

You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue,

– Jimmy Malone, The Untouchables

From Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory, to Red Saunders’ mantra: Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, we embrace aggression, and think about it as a normal part of getting on in life. As Aronson says, we don’t teach our children to enjoy learning at school, we teach them to want to compete and win.

Marketing consultant, Mark Schaefer described how he walked through the British Museum one afternoon, and realised that the whole of human history has been about aggression – one war after another – as humans protect themselves against other humans, or fight to be top dog. Schaefer says today in modern society, in business, there is always aggression underneath waiting to rear up.

It is only the law which keeps our aggression and our dark behaviour in check. And, if you think this is an overstatement, then look at the web and social media.

In Wired Magazine (2014), Adrian Chen described how social media moderators are exposed to the worst sorts of pictures and videos of violence which users regularly put online. Moderation is a heavy responsibility, and the people moderating and screening are prone to burnout and fatigue. Their job is to bear witness to the worst of humanity as they protect the online community.

Without moderation, lots of aggression gets online: 88% of online abuse – including rape and death threats – occurs on Twitter. Some of the ‘important’ account holders (and thus, influencers) are trolls. This is because it is possible to be anonymous on Twitter in a way you cannot on Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media. We may all theoretically wish for freedom of speech online – remember the blue ribbon days? – but in reality, who wants to see what those moderators must delete everyday, things which one seen can never be forgotten. In The Verge, Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly describe how moderation came about and how it takes humans to negotiate everyday the correct boundaries to keep society sane and safe.


And, if you think that trolls on Twitter are feeling better when they give vent to their hatred, think again. Research has shown that letting it all out is bad for us. In studies, it was seen that both men and women who express anger in a way that blamed others, and to justify themselves, was associated with more heart disease.

It seems that the yogis have had it right all along. It is far healthier to acknowledge a grievance and then let it go. If we dwell on our slights, perceived or otherwise, we talk about it until we need to retaliate.

The retaliation myth

Go ahead — make my day

-Dirty Harry

Again revenge and retaliation is part of a myth which resonates with us, the sense that justice will be served, and we will feel better. In reality it is not always the case.

If we overdo it, then we have to convince ourselves in our minds that the revenge was right, it wasn’t that bad and the person deserved it. Social psychology research demonstrates that we have to justify ourselves because we have to reduce the cognitive dissonance between our actions and the belief that we are good people.

New legislation in the US has realised that employees who retaliate on social media need to be afforded certain rights, and firing them is not always right the answer as we have seen above, it is just retaliating to retaliation. This law is a first step in exploring new ways of letting employees express their dissatisfaction, and reducing aggression and retaliation.


However, the most popular form of aggression on social media, is passive-aggressive behaviour, which is when someone expresses aggression indirectly. Instead of just explaining that they feel angry with you, the passive-aggressive person will take time to frustrate and distress you.

A quick google shows us that here are hundreds of blogs about passive-aggressive behaviour on social media. Mashable has a top 10 list. The most popular ways are:

  • The substatus, which occurs a lot on Twitter and Facebook, and is when someone talks about someone else where they can read about it.
  • Vaguebooking when someone is vague and alludes to what is bothering them without giving details.
  • Event invitations to which you are not invited which can give rise to FOMO – the fear of missing out.
  • Defriending someone on Facebook. It is apparently, the worst of all passive-aggressive behaviour.

We have all been on the receiving end of this sort of behaviour which can be very distressing, especially when you don’t know what to do to handle it.

And, worse still, we have all done it ourselves. We do it because we are upset, or we want to be heard, and seen, and loved, and we want to know that we count. And here, is the key to aggression, be it hostile or intentional, be it passive-aggressive, online or otherwise. If we can bear in mind why we and others behave like this, then there is a chance that we can empathise with them, and they with us, and perhaps start to talk, and have that conversation the one we were all trying to avoid by using passive-aggressive behaviour.

Empathy is the key to soothing most of the terrible feelings we have in life, such as aggression, and shame (as Brene Brown’s research has shown). We just all need to be that little bit braver, that little bit more honest, so that we can reach out to start those difficult conversations before we feel the need to escalate the feelings we can’t contain, before we need to cause damage, with our words and pictures. In this way, perhaps we could make our online and offline worlds easier places for us all.

[Part 7]

Storytelling: Narrative, Databases, and Big Data


[ 1) ghosts, 2) robots, 3) big data, 4) stories,  5) stats]

Lately, I have become convinced that storytelling is the most important activity in our lives. The field of social psychology recognises this too, and researches how and why we tell ourselves stories, we tell others stories about ourselves, and we make up stories to make sense of the world around us.

Even, meditation guru Deepak Chopra acknowledged it too, only this week when he said during the latest Oprah and Deepak 21-day meditation experience:

We shape all our info from senses to create meaning from life. We are creators, shaping the eternal now.

So, my mind boggled when I in read Vincent Miller’s Understanding Digital Culture that the database has become an alternative to narrative.

This is a theory which is widely referenced and quoted in digital culture and new media literature and was first proposed by Lev Manovich, professor in cultural analytics.

There is a distinction between storytelling and narrative, which changes depending on who you are referencing, but I like Robert Mills’s explanation (from The Media Student’s Book). He says:

  • Narrative is a sequence of events organised into a story with a particular structure.
  • Story is all of the events in a narrative presented to an audience, and those which might be inferred.

However, for me a computer scientist, storytelling and narrative are both very different from the database, which developed as organisations attempted to make use of the information held on computers. Businesses wanted to reduce redundancy and inconsistency and find a way to get all the information they had in one place, so they could manage it more easily.

Theoretically, a database must be organised so that it can serve the data requirements of different applications. If designed robustly it finds natural relationships between those data items which it holds, and can be added to, and updated without the need to redesign the whole database, so that we can retrieve and filter information in many ways.

In reality, we all know of companies who have many databases which get updated manually and then swap data overnight so things are never quite synchronised nor consistent, and there is a lot of redundancy.

In digital culture the term database can mean any collection of data, most often new media objects, which have been tagged and are loosely linked together, and can be searched, viewed, deleted, and explored (or navigated).

Even so, narrative creates order and the database does not. The database represents the world as an unordered list of items which causes the linear structure of a narrative – beginning-middle-end – to disappear leaving us with the possibility of multiple interpretations and multiple stories.

It is this perceived flexibility which has led to different explorations of the database as an alternative to narrative in cinema and journalism:

Database cinema explores multiple viewpoints and more viewer interaction without following a linear chronological storytelling approach. Interestingly enough, cinema has traditionally always chosen from multiple viewpoints and data in order to create one narrative when editing the final cut.

Database narrative offers an alternative to the inverted pyramid taught in journalism schools. Maps, data, images, are all tagged by theme and type of content and then presented to the user without a journalist’s narrative arc of the story. It is the user’s interaction with the content which determines the story that emerges.  And interestingly too, in the above example, students used Apple’s user interface design guidelines to think about how users would interact with the data.

Manovich said that creating a work in new media can be understood as the construction of an interface to a database, which gives plenty of options. That is to say, the database could look like a database or a narrative. A database can support narrative, but by itself a database couldn’t generate a narrative. (It needs someone to interpret.) And, he asks given the flexibility of the database why does narrative still exist in new media?

One reason could be, according to social and cultural psychologist David Miall, that hypertext is disruptive and does not give the liberating user participatory behaviour cultural analysts imagined it could. Miall says that the experience of immersion and absorption is fundamental to reading (and the story) doesn’t happen when you are given links everywhere.

We learn as children to construct meaning (or stories) from our environment, but now we must also learn to do so meaning from our digital environments. This won’t be easy as we are overwhelmed with lots of information and very little narrative.

And, what is the best way to create meaning? Manovich’s ideas only work with a small dataset, which is fine if users want to explore and create. But, humans hanker after order and understanding. We don’t want endless reorganising data, as we have limitations to what we can process, and we don’t want to have to figure it all out ourselves.

Already, we collect data on everything in business and our infrastructures, and via the Internet of Things we will eventually generate endless streams of data from all our appliances in our homes and cars and our wearables.

Businesses realised at least a decade ago that the only way to manage all the data they generate was to buy into big data, which they did. Big data costs are projected to cross the $100 billion mark within the next three years.  And, now businesses are drowning in big data with very little gain.

Narrative Scientist, Kristian Hammond says that the only way to get value from big data is to find – you guessed it – the narratives and insights needed to support decision making. Currently, this is done by people with strong analytic training, who look at all the data and then transform it into reports that everyone else can read. But it is not scalable. If you have a business with 1 million client portfolios, the only way to generate that many reports is to employ artificial intelligence systems to analyse clusters and recognise patterns which can be transformed into meaning. That is to say, changed into a narrative that can be read and understood by people.

Narrative scientist, Randy Olson says we need to do this in academia too. It is not enough to create journal papers and reports, we need to create compelling stories of science in order to educate and communicate people with the progress made.

Stories matter, they educate and change us. It may be true that we are learning how to engage differently with our digital environments. It may also be true that databases big and small can stimulate us to look at the facts from multiple viewpoints and create our own stories. However, the database is no substitute or alternative for a well crafted narrative, whether it was written by a human or a computer.

The story is here to stay.

Self-justification: The Social Animal on Social Media (5)

Personifications of social media sites

[Part 5 of 9: The Social Animal on Social Media, Part 1,
Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9]

I have been stuck on this blog, for a while, as I try to talk about the ways in which we justify ourselves, social animals on social media.

I guess I am stuck because I don’t want to pick examples of people who are self-justifying on Twitter or Facebook. Speculating in a gossipy fashion just makes me feel unscientific and a bit grubby. However, speculating in a gossipy fashion is what we do, all of us, even if we don’t realise it, and we are great at finding ways of reducing that feeling of grubbiness, which is the subject of this post.

Elliot Aronson in his classic text book: The Social Animal says that we are all amateur social psychologists. We spend a lot of our day watching other people, speculating on their motives, creating theories about them, whilst reformulating other stories and theories in order to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. In fact, professional social psychologists do exactly the same, only in laboratory style conditions, with specific outcomes.

So, it is no surprise that with all that going on, it can be exhausting to live in our busy world. Not only do we have to figure out what is going on but as we saw in Part 4,  we are also constantly forced into making hundreds of decisions a day, big and small, and then we have to live with the outcomes.

How many times a day do we second-guess ourselves? How many times a day, do we make a decision, feel happy with it, and then later on, criticise ourselves as we learn more. Or, we do something and wish we hadn’t, and then we have to live with it, which can sometimes leave us feeling awful.

Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory postulates that we try to organise our attitudes and beliefs so that they do not contradict each other and we can avoid feeling awful (or feeling dissonance). Sometimes when new beliefs we have adopted are so dissonant with our existing ones, we will tell ourselves all manner of things in order to reduce the dissonance.

Aronson uses the example of buying a new product like a vacuum cleaner, or entering a new relationship with someone, and says that research shows that we quickly reorganise our thoughts to emphasise the positive attributes and ignore the negative aspects of whatever we have chosen.  If we have a choice between two people, or two vacuum cleaners, we make a decision, then emphasise the negative attributes and ignore the positive bits of the option we didn’t choose. In this way, we can not only justify our decisions as the right ones, we also make ourselves feel happier and committed to the person or product we are taking home.

Once we are committed to a decision, or course of action, we stop thinking about it and get on with our lives. If a decision is irrevocable and we have managed to reduce dissonance by focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative, then frequently, we become more certain that we have made a wise decision, but if not, then really there is nothing we can do about it. We embrace the decision as a fact of life.

So, people who need us to commit to something, such as politicians or salespeople, will try their hardest to encourage us to commit and get a decision made in their favour.

One way is ask people for a small favour. It is effective because having agreed to a favour, then a decision is made and so it becomes no longer a question of deciding but one of following through. One example given here is how residents in Indiana (USA) were called and asked if they would hypothetically volunteer three hours of their time collecting money for the American Cancer Society. Three days later,  the same people were called again and asked to volunteer. Of those responding to the earlier request, 31% agreed to help. Without the foot in the door approach only 4% of a similar group of people volunteered to help when asked directly.

In the above example, even if you didn’t want to collect for the American Cancer Society, it would be easy to feel ok about it because it’s a good cause and in that way you could reduce your dissonance.

However, sometimes we end up doing and saying things which we don’t feel are for a good cause, but we do them anyway and then feel dissonance and then we need to square that with ourselves using internal and external justification.

In one experiment, Festinger demonstrated how these justifications work, by paying one group $20 to tell a lie, and another group $1 to do the same. Those who were paid $20 could more easily say that they told a lie and got $20 – an external motivation. Those group who were paid a dollar, claimed that they believed in the lie, because it is easier to believe a lie than justify being honest and telling a lie for only $1.

Lies for money is ok, we can justify that, and little white lies are ok, because they are a way of not hurting someone’s feelings. But, it is a slippery slope which easily leads to people behaving immorally, unless they are exposed to just the right amount of temptation which causes them to be fanatical about behaving with good morals.

However, when people voluntarily choose to act in ways that cause them suffering (dissonance), they resolve this dissonance by valuing whatever it is they receive. Gangs, secret societies and American fraternity houses sometimes have painful or degrading initiation rites in return for belonging. And, then people may tell themselves that it was worth the pain, because life is so much better now.

Interestingly, squaring things with ourselves don’t have to make us look good – just consistent. For, cognitive dissonance is about staying faithful to the beliefs we have, even when evidence suggests that it is a mad belief to hold, which is why it can take a long time to leave a cult or an abusive relationship. Life’s commitments require a lot of emotional investment and risk.

So, how do we stop this potentially destructive behaviour? The best way I have seen so far is Byron Katie’s The Work, which gets us to question our beliefs by asking: Is it true? when we are right in the middle of feeling uncomfortable. If we can question our beliefs before we take them on board, then perhaps we don’t need to rationalise them with all the others things we think, and then we can start questioning them too, until we don’t need to square things with ourselves at all. And once we live harmoniously with ourselves, it is then a simple step to live harmoniously with others.

[Part 6]