Monday, 17 November 2014

Cognitive Dissonance and Respectful Disagreements

In an argument, it is fundamentally disrespectful to the other person to assume, let alone assert, that the reason they don�t agree with you is because they are suffering from a defect in their reasoning.

Increasingly, psychological terms like �cognitive dissonance� are being used by dog trainers as a way to explain everything from why some people choose to use e-collars to issues with client compliance.  Whilst an understanding of psychology can undeniably help us understand how to effectively communicate with clients and help them through roadblocks in their training with their dogs, I believe that some of these psychological concepts are being over-used. More specifically, concepts like cognitive dissonance are used to immediately explain what is happening inside the mind of the person we are trying to communicate with - whether that�s another trainer or a client - and I think this is essentially insulting.

Cognitive dissonance is, at bottom, a defect in the reasoning process.  It�s a common problem, born from our reliance on heuristics to quickly draw conclusions from available information and beliefs, and it is local, meaning that a person can suffer from it in one area of their reasoning but not in others. In using concepts like cognitive dissonance to account for disagreements, we are essentially privileging our point of view over that of our opponent at a level that our opponent cannot argue with.  We are saying that our opponents are suffering from a defect in their reasoning, and that - tacitly - if they were free from this defect, they would have agreed with us all along. 

If you accuse me of suffering from cognitive dissonance, it�s almost impossible for me to prove otherwise.  Saying �No I don�t� only makes me look defensive, but there aren�t many other things I can say.  It drains an argument of any use and makes it impossible for you to lose, since my statements are automatically made irrelevant by your �diagnosis� of my defect.  In short, diagnosing your opponent with cognitive dissonance in an argument is a cheap way to avoid actually justifying your own claims.  It is an ad hominem attack dressed in a tweed jacket - it appears intellectually profound but in fact it�s deeply dishonest.

Instead of assuming that people who disagree with us or who won�t comply with our requests are suffering from cognitive dissonance or related problems, we ought to start from the belief that everyone is equally reasonable, and work on showing that the arguments themselves are faulty.  If our arguments are strong, we should be secure enough in our ability to muster the relevant facts, lay out our inferences and allow our opponent to try to criticize us.  This is the only way to show our opponents that we respect them as equals.  Failing to respect people who disagree with us as equals - or making them prove their equality - shows a kind of arrogance that will only lead to laziness.