Dear Drama Observers,
In my early teens, my parents sent me to a North Carolina summer camp where we could see Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi. Mount Mitchell majestically looms at 6684 feet. I grew up in a state where the highest elevation is 806 feet. . . I was duly impressed.
Something else impressed me that first summer—my counselor played college football. For a boy growing up in the South during those years, college football was something akin to a religion and Saturday games were like mass religious ceremonies. And I was a “religious” fanatic. If you’d asked me that summer which impressed me more, Mount Mitchell or my football-playing counselor, well, that would’ve been a hard call.
Though not explicitly so, the camp counselors were religiously-oriented guys who led bedtime devotionals and tried as best they could to instill certain moral values and principles. One afternoon, our counselor asked one of my cabin mates to go get something out of his glove compartment. The kid returned with the requested item along with something he was shocked to find next to it—a condom. Our counselor’s initial embarrassment quickly morphed into a fun and light-hearted “locker-room” description of exactly how he spent his weekends off.
The colloquial way to describe my mental discombobulation at that moment would be “deer in the headlights.” I couldn’t get my head around what was happening right in front of me. I was stunned. Here was this revered figure who led inspiring devotionals before we went to bed bragging about what he did in bed every weekend.
The more clinical way to describe my experience would be cognitive dissonance. That’s a term for the discomfort we feel when unreconcilable opposites exist simultaneously within the same person or experience. It’s a psychological tack-in-the-shoe making it difficult to walk through life. The incongruence between the opposites is the pain of the tack. My counselor had portrayed himself one way but was actually a different way. The sudden realization of my counselor’s hypocrisy was extremely uncomfortable.
That was my dissonance.
But cognitive dissonance theory also suggests something else: When we experience discomfort resulting from the incongruence, we’ll alter one side until it lines up with the other. Once they’re lined up, the dissonance is gone. We’re wired to avoid pain and realignment is a way to get that figurative tack out of the shoe.
For example, I’m making good time on the interstate—that’s pleasant. But I’m going 85 mph—that’s worrisome. The incongruence of the two experiences is uncomfortable and that produces cognitive dissonance. To reduce the discomfort, I convince myself that driving 85 mph is actually a good thing because it opens up bottle necks for everyone else and keeps traffic moving more smoothly and safely. I’ve rationalized the bad thing into a good thing. Alas, my two good things are now consistent with each other and my dissonance vanishes. Voila! Problem solved.
Let’s say I had handled my counselor dissonance by convincing myself that his bad behavior was not actually that bad after all. Sure, I’d have felt better but, by making that alteration, I would’ve forfeited my principles in exchange for comfort. That’s what cognitive dissonance can sometimes lead us to do, and Drama People prey on this human nature tendency.
When we hold on to a person’s stellar positives by overlooking their glaring negatives, that alteration of reality can end up altering us. And it can happen so subtly that we fail to recognize it.
We see examples of this all the time, both in the public and private realms of life. Maybe that Drama Person is a family member, a politician, a preacher, a movie mogul, a revered actor, an employer, a newscaster, or a sports figure. They are chockablock with the positives we admire; but then we find out that underneath the openly-displayed positives are incongruent and deeply disturbing negatives. We thought they were this way only to discover they are that way. That realization creates dissonance. If we alter their negatives into positives as a way of reducing our own discomfort, we become altered ourselves in the process. Or to put it differently, we inadvertently collude in their deception. At that point, the corruption of the person has indeed corrupted us.
In an interview this week with The Washington Post, UC Santa Barbara psychology researcher Bella DePaulo observed,
When liars repeat the same lie over and over again, they can get even more of an advantage, at least among those who want to believe them or are not all that motivated either way. So, when people hear the same lies over and over again — especially when they want to believe those lies — a kind of new reality can be created. What they’ve heard starts to seem like it’s just obvious, and not something that needs to be questioned.
What jumped out at me was her phrase, “. . . especially when they want to believe those lies.” In our current climate of tribal loyalties, the corrupting potential of cognitive dissonance becomes even more pronounced. In operation, it leads to asininities like this:
We overlook on our side that which we condemn on their side.
We discover that the object of our admiration is a hypocrite. But when that person’s incongruent behavior is overlooked, explained away, rationalized, or denied, we become hypocrites ourselves by participating in the cover-up. The leader’s corruption cancer has now metastasized into those who follow.
This explains how campers can take on the unsavory characteristics of revered counselors. And perhaps this is to what Lord Acton was referring when he famously said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Till next week.