The joys and tribulations of dissonance

Ever wondered why people cling adamantly to their point of view even when all evidence points to it being misguided or that it’s consequences will be catastrophic? They invariably have a vested interest in maintaining their view. That interest may be financial, cynically so for those who visibly plunder the world for their personal short-term gain believing they can escape the longer-term consequences. But in many cases it is so deeply rooted in their image of themselves they will go to any lengths to defend it.

What exactly is happening here? Let’s say that a world view is a way of organising our understanding of things that happen around us in a coherent, explicable whole. We may not give it a name, but we all have such an encompassing understanding of the world. Now if something happens that challenges that organisation, rather than adjusting our way of seeing the world we are much more likely to find arguments to reinforce our point of view by invalidating that which contradicts it. A deep-felt craving for coherence is undoubtably a part of human nature. The technical term for our reaction to destabilising realities is ‘cognitive dissonance’. In layman’s terms, it is what happens when our long-held understanding of a phenomenon jars with our current perception and the mechanisms we employ to return to a less discordant view, often by disqualifying or blindly ignoring that which causes dissonance.

Much less frequently such a discordance may lead to a paradigm shift that can take on massive proportions like when the earth ceased being considered to be at the centre of the cosmos and the sun (at that time) was seen to replace it. This is a particularly salient example as a considerable number of people lost their lives because they openly subscribed to the new point of view. For some people, especially those who belong to an organisation anchored in an unbending set of beliefs, violence if not going to war to defend their world view is their unquestionable right.

The phenomenon of handling such dissonance is at the heart of my new novel, The Boy in the Book. I hadn’t anticipated it, but with hindsight, it was an inevitable consequence of confronting a character in a book with the reader of that book. How would you feel if someone told you with absolute assurance that what you saw as your life in which you felt free to act as you wished was in fact dictated by a story written in a book? Denial? Self justification? Panic? Certainly not acceptance. Not that the reader in my novel is so blunt. She is considerate, being able to imagine herself in the same position. However, the temptation to reveal what she sees as the ‘reality’ is great. As for my character, he is trying to justify what is happening in terms of concepts familiar to him and which fit his worldview. But there is no way he can satisfactorily explain what is happening to him unless he steps outside the book. Whether or not he will take that step I do not know – I still have a lot to write – but I’m pretty sure it will become his ardent desire.

See also the interview of the author about The Boy in the Book.

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