Your brain is full of machines. Each machine is made of thousands of cogs spinning in tandem with one another, and all the machines are more or less connected and dependent upon each other. When a cog starts to break down, other parts of the machine pitch in to repair it, replace it, or bypass it. This is because your survival is dependent upon the smooth functioning of each and every cog.
Or so the machines want you to think. Because they control you.
|This is your brain on cogs.
This is, of course, an analogy which I’m using to illustrate a complicated idea — the theory of cognitive dissonance. A cognition (or cog) is any single thought, feeling, idea, concept, perception, behavior, social feedback, memory, attitude, goal, value, or commitment. When you put them together with other cognitions, they build all the belief systems that make up you. Earth is round, tacos are delicious, love feels nice, kittens are fuzzy, corporations are evil, God is great, and Republicans all suck and should go hide in a cave until they come up with some way to not look like a bunch of clowns.
Or whatever it is you believe. I happen to have a moderate opinion on the flavor of tacos, and I’ve never met God so I’m not sure how neat He is.
Each of these cogs, and the belief systems they build, have varying levels of importance. There are people who would die to save their favorite taco, and other people who don’t really care that much about food. How strongly you feel when your precious (or not-so-precious) cog is threatened will inform your reaction to various kinds of incoming cogs that other people throw at you. By the way… you might want to duck.
You see, living in the world means we constantly encounter new cognitions every day. The Flat Earth Society distributes pamphlets, paleovangelists push their anti-taco propaganda, love breaks your heart, kittens are proven to cause cancer, corporations run ads about saving lives, atheists say God is not great, and you’ve got friends who are Republican. Everyone has a different message to push, and if we really believed everything we heard, we’d change our minds everyday about everything. More frighteningly, we’d never know what brand of breakfast cereal to buy. (I’m a paleovangelist, so I don’t buy cereal brands. None of them are true.) Our brains need some sort of mechanism to hold all our cogs together or they’d roll bouncing our of our heads and people would trip on them and fall down.
That mechanism is an emotional reward and punishment system known as Cognitive Consonance and Dissonance. Consonance is a good feeling. When we see a beautiful taco on TV, spinning in a glorious light, with beautiful green lettuce hand-picked for its photogenic properties, sticking out from the crunchy shell at aesthetically pleasing angles, and the announcer shouts, “Recommended by four out of five dentists who chew gum for people who like mouthwatering, savory tacos!”, we think “Yes! I knew it! I knew I loved tacos. And now they’re healthy, too! Sweet Jesus I was right all along! Baptize me in Fire™ sauce!”
Dissonance occurs when we take in information that is contrary to an existing belief. The more cherished the belief, the more powerful this feeling. It drives us to protect our sacred cogs and the giant, powerful machines they hold together. 9,329* studies last year show that corn is horribly bad for you. It’s probably why we are all coming down with diabetes. But if you really love tacos, you don’t want to hear this. The more you love tacos, the less you want to hear this. And that feeling is called cognitive dissonance.
* I made this up. But some studies showed this. I’m lazy. Go google it.
Cognitive dissonance isn’t just one feeling. It can manifest in a whole range of uncomfortable emotional side effects: Confusion, irritation, annoyance, anger, rage, sadness, denial, defensiveness, nervousness, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, easy bruising, weight gain, and painful erections lasting more than four hours. (The last four are extremely rare. I’m sure you’ll be fine.) Under those conditions, you will be highly motivated to rid yourself of the offending thought in some way, so you can go back to eating tacos in health-defying glee.
In the end, we don’t want to feel crazy, because to feel crazy is to die. To willy-nilly accept new beliefs without some type of discomfort might cause insanity. So would dumping out all our old beliefs without good reason. As would actually believing six impossible things before breakfast. So dissonance and consonance work together to make all the cogs in our mind somehow fit together, even when sometimes they directly conflict with one another. Even when sometimes, in reality, they make us believe impossible things. Like pretty much everything you believe right now.
But only a little bit.
There are a number of strategies our minds use to handle cognitive dissonance. They all involve lowering dissonance or increasing consonance, or some combination of both. The fact that one cog (I like tacos) might be connected to alot of other cogs (I want to be healthy; I believe in science; I can eat whatever I want; this is America where we have freedom to eat what we want; people who threaten freedom are Communists; I hate Communists; I also like Doritos; Doritos are made out of corn; some tacos are made out of Doritos; Jesus ate tacos at the Last Supper; Jesus can’t be wrong; Jesus wasn’t a Communist) can promote the importance of that cog and increase the intensity of the dissonance. If you can’t resolve the conflict, an entire machine might break. And we can’t have that.
Protect the Cogs!
The process of resolving dissonance happens automatically. Sometimes it only takes a couple of seconds to walk through all the options and emotions they inspire and logical links they create, to come up with a resolution. Sometimes it takes days or longer. Here are the three strategies:
1. Alter Cogs — We’ve got the old cogs and this new interloper that threatens to break the machine. So we can change something, either the new cognition, or an old one.
Sometimes the easiest thing is to reject the new idea. “There must be something wrong with that study. With uh… all 9,329 studies. I’m just going to pretend I never heard of it. Crunch crunch yes, nine out of ten dentists agree with me. So good.”
Or you can alter one or more of your existing beliefs or behaviors.
- Science doesn’t know anything. Crunch crunch.
- Besides, I’m going to die anyway. Might as well crunch crunch.
- And tacos don’t even have corn. That’s just a myth! Crunch crunch.
As a last resort, depending on how much we like tacos, we may even change that cherished sacred cog: “Okay, fine. Science has persuaded me to be a Communist. I will stop eating tacos and I now believe Taco Bell should be dismantled by the government. Vive la paleo!”
2. Add New Cogs – By adding new cogs we can create new systems that help the old system work alongside the new one. “Yes, I believe in science and I still want to be healthy and I still love America. Which is why I have become convinced all corn studies are funded by the anti-corn lobby which is secretly controlled by aliens who know that corn actually makes us stronger and more immune to their mind control rays!”
We can also take steps to increase cognitive consonance to drown out any remaining discomfort, say by joining an alien abduction support group where they let us present evidence for this conspiracy as they nod their heads in heart-warming agreement, and every once in awhile, Old Bob shouts, “I knew it!” right before eating the last taco, and every time he does that, it sparks a new round of cognitive dissonance, because you like it when Old Bob agrees with you, but damn it, that was the last taco!
3. Alter Importance – You may have noticed that importance is important in how important the importance of the dissonance is. To put it more simply, if you can merely lower how important you think one or more cogs is, you will find instant relief. This is the solution you’ve come to when you shout, “FINE! I never liked tacos anyway! God just leave me alone, stupid scientists!” Maybe you keep eating tacos, but decide your health isn’t that big a deal, or that science isn’t a big deal. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, right? So you embrace Communism and tacos and science and freedom and corn, because nothing really matters, and congratulations, you’re a nihilist. Dissonance doesn’t even exist anymore. Did it ever? If it did, it shouldn’t have.
On this same scale, you can increase the importance of cognitions that give you consonance. Suddenly, you’re looking at pictures of kittens on the internet, because boy, they sure are fuzzy. Ah, doesn’t that feel good? You commit to a new diet plan to eat five tacos a day, to overcome your fear of commitment which is something you’ve been meaning to do anyway, and you can almost forget about those 9,329 studies. Yay corn! Crunch crunch.
What does any of this have to do with mind control? Everything! So sit down and stop asking questions and believe everything I say. You trust me, right? Because once I’ve earned your trust by stoking flames of consonance using your existing belief in kittens and the omniscient power of tacos, I will need to reroute any dissonance you may feel as I slowly install my own cogs. Many of those cogs will be specially designed to elevate the importance of the beliefs I want you to have while giving you the tools you’ll need to handle dissonance that will be thrown at you from the outside world. Because when you belong to a cult, you will have lots of opportunities to feel dissonance. You will depend on social approval from the group to feel consonance.
Mind control techniques can be seen as a system of beliefs designed to protect the belief system when the rest of the world, and its facts, regularly disagrees.
Almost every mind control technique has to do with manipulating cogs. Any totalist group must overcome your overwhelming cognitive dissonance which was originally designed by evolution to make you not believe everything people tell you. The cult must make you believe what they have to tell you, so they will use cognitive consonance by telling you things you already agree with, to overcome your dissonance about how weird they are and about how they are secretly communists who will eventually restrict your intake of tacos but not before giving you three free kittens and praising Fire™ sauce. (Plus Bob isn’t there to eat the last taco.)
Once you’ve attended enough meetings and now have committed to pledging life-giving care to ten precious fuzzy lifepuffs, which you’ve named after famous historical tacos, the totalist group will begin installing new beliefs that you never had before, cogs that will lock you into the group and make it extremely painful to leave. Some cogs are designed to keep you isolated from dissonance-causing information. Some are designed to bounce the bullets of dissonance right off your newly-thickened skull. Some are designed to create dependence, and increase the importance of community and social pressure. Some are designed to suppress any doubts that arise, and prevent you from voicing criticism. Some can even give you phobias to prevent you from leaving. They convince you that the group is keeping you safe, so the idea of accepting new cognitions will literally cause fear to pound in your chest.
Your new cult will promote the importance of tacos until yes, you will die to defend tacos, while simultaneously accepting new restrictions on actually eating them. You quickly learn to hate the government (which funds studies into the health effects of corn), hate science (which actually does studies on corn), and hate all paleovangelists who are clearly sent from the Great Satan of Carb Haters to destroy all the Good People like you that God has chosen to promote kittens and tacos. I mean, who could hate a kitten, except a devil worshipper?
Cognitive dissonance is actually good. It’s good for your sanity, survival, and for humanity. It’s how we learn and how we defend ourselves from snakeoil salesmen. Except when the salesman is selling really good snakeoil and it cures what ails you and you saw it with your own eyes, a lame boy could walk it’s a miracle, please take my money!
Yes, dissonance and consonance can be manipulated. But the fact is, it has to be manipulated. Only tricky smart people are able to do it, and even then, only sometimes. By learning about dissonance and manipulation techniques, you are installing new cogs that prevent the installation of harmful cogs. Adopting an attitude of healthy skepticism, and demanding facts, and researching more than one source and opinion will help those nasty Cogs of Evil bounce right off your forehead… tho not without a little pain.
And even then, somewhere out there, is a cult leader who will find a way to take advantage of you. It may have already happened. I hope that thought doesn’t make you too uncomfortable.
Luna Lindsey (link: http://www.lunalinsey.com) is an indie author of speculative fiction. Her blog covers many topics, including books, writing, feminism, humor, geek culture, political philosophy, weird photos, and random musings.
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