Your Rationale Behind Skipping Class—It's Science

Have you ever contemplated skipping a class that you don’t want to go to? How do you support this decision? You could reason that the professor isn’t great at teaching anyway and that you’d learn more from just reading the textbook; or you could note that plenty of people skip class and you, on the other hand, haven’t missed any.  You could even convince yourself that you already know the material well enough and could use this time more wisely for other assignments you have due.  Or, you could just suck it up and go to class. Although you might not be aware of it, the decision and justifications you make in a couple seconds involve a concept called cognitive dissonance.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is a psychology phrase that describes the discomfort you feel when you hold two opposing beliefs and therefore feel hypocritical.  For example, with the above scenario, you want to skip class because it stresses you out and you have a lot of other work, but you also know that you are paying an incredibly high tuition price for these classes and you know that it is disrespectful to the professor and your fellow classmates who prepared for the class.  Holding both these beliefs in your consciousness can make you feel like a hypocrite, which worsens when you have to make a decision about whether or not to go to class.  Therefore, you must change either your beliefs or your actions to put yourself at ease. This, in turn alleviates your cognitive dissonance, as you make a definitive decision about what belief you value more.  If you choose not to go to class, you might change your beliefs by coming up with excuses like the professor is not effective in teaching, or that your peers skip class occasionally, so why shouldn’t you? If you choose to change your behavior, you might decide that skipping is not worth it and go to class despite the inconvenience it may be for you.  Either way, you put your mind at ease enough to carry on with your day.  Furthermore, due to the nature of our brain, once we make a decision to solve our cognitive dissonance, it seems that our consciousness reinforces our choice, making us feel even more strongly about the choice we made, creating a cycle of confirmation bias.

The interactions between cognitive dissonance and politics

Little solutions to cognitive dissonance like this may seem trivial in scenarios like these, but when your actions and beliefs start to negatively affect the lives of other people, that’s when problems arise. Take for example, the current political climate.  With party lines being as polarized as they are, it is very easy to get caught up in the threat of cognitive dissonance.  In fact, there have been numerous studies that suggest that cognitive dissonance may play a part in causing people to be less open to ideas that conflict with their preferred political party’s platforms. Interestingly, it seems that those holding conservative views may be more susceptible to cognitive dissonance in political situations, although people from both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of it. This phenomena may play a part in the huge partisan divide we see in politics today, and ultimately could hurt the U.S. citizens that this government has sworn to protect.

An example of cognitive dissonance effecting policy is in the case of climate change. There is an overwhelming volume of data that supports not only the existence of climate change, but that human activity has sped up the process at an alarming rate.  However, many people, particularly those who associate themselves with the parties that deny manmade climate change, still try to justify that this is a natural turn of events or blatantly declare that the climate isn’t changing at all. For example, some people that hold the world view that the climate is changing use the evidence of unusual cold weather events as evidence that the world’s overall temperature is not getting higher.  Other ways people deny climate change include saying that scientists have a liberal bias, that this is a natural cycle the earth goes through and not due to human activity, that carbon dioxide does not cause climate change, that models are not completely fool proof, and much more.  

Despite the facts that these arguments can be shown to be unsubstantiated through empirical research, there are just some people who hold steadfast in their opinion.  These people seem to be experiencing cognitive dissonance, as they identify as republicans and want industry to thrive, yet obviously there are many scientific studies to support the existence of man-made climate change.  In addition, the implications of climate change are far-reaching and quite frankly terrifying for the future of the human race, so denying this concept gives people a little comfort.  They choose to make excuses to try to discredit scientific sources, supporting legislation that removes environmental protection, and ignore any doubts in their minds that climate change is in fact real. This phenomena happens not only with the subject of climate change, but with scientific studies in general that challenge people’s world and political views.

What can be done?

Unfortunately, cognitive dissonance seems to be a side effect of being human.  It is rather difficult to analytically pick apart every decision we make and have enough introspection to discern why we think and act the way we do.  However, in instances where our views and actions directly affect other people, it is extremely important to really analyze why we think the way we do. Instead of completely ignoring other people’s perspectives, listen to what they have to say and ask them to provide evidence.  Make your arguments based on empirical scientific evidence and try to understand that people come from different backgrounds than yours that inform their world views.  Most importantly, stay open minded and realize it is okay for you to change your understanding of a subject if you come across information that upends your argument.  No one likes to be “wrong," but the future of our children and their children seems to depend on it.