Biases That Preserve Our Comfort Zone

Biases That Preserve Our Comfort Zone June 18, 2019

by Cindy Kunsman

Continuing the ongoing discussion of cognitive bias, explaining a puzzle piece as to why we humans cling so tightly to belief systems like Quiverfull and more. Today, let’s recap what we should already know, but when it comes to our own ideas, we tend not to believe that we’re so subject to our nature.

To truly understand the serious discomfort of Cognitive Dissonance, one must take the most basic assumption of human beings as a logical starting point: that the information that we notice represents objective reality in a reliable fashion. If you’ve seen the film, The Final Cut, you may know that our minds tag information with all sorts of things that are not facts so that we can best store and access them, but they are not a true measure of reality. (If we are lucky, we remember those things that are most important in a way that is realistic ‘enough.’) As the diagram below attests, we are very selective about what we remember, and even those things are used to tell a story – usually one that we like to hear.

We also use introspection to measure our own thoughts and feelings, but we always make the assumption that we are fair and kind – or at least as much as the next guy. And because of our aversion to cognitive dissonance, we also assume and assure ourselves that our motives can only be good and honorable.

We also assume that our own behavior represents sensibility and represents the standard of what is right and true. Like George Carlin’s old joke, we perceive that those who drive slower than us on the highway are driving too slow, and those who drive faster drive too fast. We assign ourselves with the reasonable standard against which we understand others, and if we are reasonably healthy in mind and soul, we always find ourselves in the right. Anything else causes cognitive dissonance because it challenges who we are, suggesting that we’re not the good, competent, reasonable people that we like to think we are. Almost like a twist on Protagoras, in most things, we see our own perspective as thoughtful and circumspect – and it serves as the primary root of all cognitive dissonance.

Once we decide upon any position, our ego goes to work and beings to close our thoughts around that decision. We will no longer accept alternatives as valid as our own, and all of the other aspects of our self will conform to our decision to reinforce our sense of consistency. Information to the contrary suddenly seems suspect, and we cast disparagement on anything that suggests error. (Asking someone who just bought a car whether they thought that they made a right decision is the worst time to do so. They will be biased in favor of their purchase because they cannot afford the cognitive dissonance generated by a different choice. Unless they landed a grand lemon, they will think that their own choice is best.)

Naive Realism

This bias that coddles our ego with good thoughts also extends to how we perceive others and what we can anticipate when we interact with them. Unless past experience has taught us otherwise, when seeking a desirable outcome, we can project our own sense of reason-ability on to others. We again hold our own understanding of ourselves as the standard, but we really have no way of knowing what others are thinking and feeling. (Often, others are not even acting thoughtfully, and it’s likely that even fewer have a well-developed sense of self-awareness.) This assumption has been dubbed Naive Realism, and this bias always casts us in a positive light.

In some sense, then, cognitive dissonance theory is really one of blind spots. It’s not willful, but it becomes an unintentional bias that avoids anything that will give us cause to question our beliefs, convictions, or behaviors – and our neatly corresponding sense of self. In the beginning of a paradigm shift, we will doubt or discredit those things that challenge us until we hit a tipping point that demands that we reckon with them. This drive for comfort motivates us as powerfully as hunger and thirst, and we all become subjects in its service as it serves its purpose for us. It’s one of the many gifts and curses of our humanity. And if we are lucky enough, we become grounded in enough biases that are good enough. Some of us learn by crawling out of them after they’ve taken their toll, while some of us perish while still entrenched in them.

Further Reading:

Gilovich and Ross’ The Wisest One in the Room

Tavris and Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made

McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart

Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So

Cindy is a nurse who was raised in Word of Faith, a Second Generation Adult of cultic Christianity. She and her husband dabbled in Calvinism and Theonomy as a foil to Christian anti-intellectualism, and they were exit counseled together when the walked away from a church that embraced Gothard’s teachings. Cindy escaped many Quiverfull pitfalls but became a social pariah for failing to birth a family. She’s been decrying the abuses of the Patriarchy Movement since 2004, and she writes about spiritual abuse at her blog, Under Much Grace. Read more about her here.

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  • Saraquill

    My high school boasted the Chart, containing the grades and SAT scores of students who got accepted into and rejected from various colleges. Because it was math, the Chart’s logic was absolute. When I pointed out that College X, Y and Z rejected students with high grades but accepted those with mediocre ones, I got “The Chart is never wrong, shut up.”

  • Friend

    What do you think was going on? Were some high achievers demonstrably horrible? Were colleges looking beyond scores to create a vibrant environment and/or open up opportunities?

    Or were safety schools rejecting kids who were almost certainly not going to enroll? College applications used to ask students to list the other places where they were applying. If I listed Harvard, Princeton, and Yale on my app to Flyspeck Junior College, I would expect to be rejected by Flyspeck. (We were told to leave this blank or put “undecided.”)

  • Saraquill

    Who knows? One of the first things this school instilled in us was that matriculating there destroyed our future. (This school was allegedly so wonderful, colleges were sick of accepting its students.)

  • Friend

    (Groan.) Every college kid becomes an example of their high school’s output. It takes skill for high school counselors to match students with colleges.

  • otrame

    I think it should be noted that EVERYONE is susceptible to cognitive dissonance. Absolutely everyone. It makes fools of us all.

    The trick is to recognize situations were it might be a problem and try to be honest with yourself about. Unfortunately, that will not prevent it, it will just make it somewhat less likely to cause serious problems.

  • Friend

    Maybe because this is a guest post (if you are referring to the different font).

  • Right. When people get involved with Quiverfull cultures, they keep the weird stuff on the back burner until you become attached to the system. Then, the dissonance starts — inside the group because of the control dynamics and punishment system. The cognitive dissonance that members feel when they are outside of the cultivation bubble usually acts to help reinforce the group’s control. The outside world challenges a person, so to dump the pain of it, they cling to the group. In some sense, it’s a miracle that anyone leaves a group or abandons an ideology..

    It’s also cognitive dissonance that prompts a person to leave a group. On the inside of the culture, the pain of punishment pushes members to rethink their beliefs. The dissonance that they ignored and shelved to stay in the group gives way into an epiphany that something is very wrong.

    When a person leaves that culture, they experience cognitive dissonance also. Who wants to realize that they were duped into signing up and that so many things that they believed were so extreme? Who wants to learn and accept the idea that they wounded the very people they meant to nurture and help through the endeavor?

    I’ve heard So many people say the same words: “I would have never believed it if I hadn’t experienced it myself.” “I had to see it with my own eyes.”

  • Suzanne Harper Titkemeyer

    Because I didn’t take the time last night to fix the fonts. Guest posts sometimes end up in whatever font they are written in.

  • SAO

    There’s a huge benefit to being a legacy at most colleges. Harvard accepts 33% of their legacy applicants, which is over 5 times higher than their non-legacy rate. The number of legacies admitted is usually substantially higher than the affirmative action acceptances. If your parent donates a lot or works for the alum association, the kid can be fairly mediocre. As a result, alums of good schools with less-than-impressive kids, up their donations and start volunteering when the kid hits high school.