The Discomfort of Dissonance

The topic that I found most interesting about the self this week was cognitive dissonance. The theory of cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that people feel when two beliefs, attitudes conflict or when they are inconsistent with their conception of themselves. Dissonance is especially most disruptive when one of these dissonant cognitions challenges our sense of self-worth. Now it is no surprise that a central part of human behavior is our need to preserve a stable and positive self-image, a high self-esteem. So I wanted to ponder one of the most significant parts of our lives: our dietary choices. Some people might not consider what you eat to be such a crucial part of your life, but there are a lot of things to connect with what you choose to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Food is a staple in everyone’s everyday lives, and can even hold larger significance if you’re a foodie, or if food is a social experience for you, or if food is really important to your culture or ethnic group—the list goes on. For me, although I loved rice and meat and food in general growing up, I never really thought about how serious people take food—until I changed my attitude and behavior toward food so that it no longer fit the norm of a typical person’s diet, let alone a Chinese American’s diet. Apparently, food, in my experience, is central for people to maintain their self-image.

I really think the theory of cognitive dissonance does a great job of describing why people often get so defensive around people choose not to eat meat or other animal products. Now of course, my intention in this blog post is not at all to generalize all people and say anyone who is not vegan acts in the way I’m describing. I’m just talking from my experiences both from being an omnivore my whole life to being vegan the past few years. In this situation, I think there are two different main cognitions—”I love animals” and “I love meat.” People are usually quite good with having these inconsistent and contradictory beliefs and attitudes and not really confronting the hypocrisy.

When someone is asked to confront the hypocrisy of saying you love animals when consuming animals on a daily basis, there are pretty much two options: you continue to eat animals or you stop eating animals. I would argue that confronting your daily habits and a behavior you grew up with your whole life is certainly jarring and a great cause of cognitive dissonance. And I think people who face this situation subconsciously or consciously adopt one or more of three basic dissonance-reducing behaviors. The first would be changing our behavior to bring it in line with the dissonant cognition. So for me, my dissonant cognition is that eating meat and any other animal products is unnecessarily cruel, unhealthy, and extremely harmful to the environment. I choose to change my behavior and go vegan by refraining from consuming and using any animal products. The second way would be attempting to justify our behavior through changing one of the dissonant cognitions. So this could be changing your beliefs on what you know to be fact (that red meat is actually a known carcinogen; that the meat and dairy industries, aside from killing countless animals for the sake of human enjoyment, also treat animals with severe cruelty; that our earth is hurting because of human actions, and consuming meat and dairy are very harmful to the environment when compared to a plant-based diet) to justify your actions: “This steak isn’t that bad for me,” or “Pigs and chickens and cows are totally different from dogs and cats,” or “I bet people exaggerate the effects of our food choices on the environment. Also, climate change isn’t real.” And the third would be attempting to justify our behavior by adding new cognitions, so that could be “Cutting meat out of my life would be greatly inconvenient on my lifestyle,” or “I know it’s bad for you, but I could never cut cheese out of my life—it’s too good, life is too short.”

Another topic discussed in the textbook was dissonance across cultures. Although I am American, which would suggest an individualistic mindset, I am also Chinese, raised by Chinese immigrant parents. In a study detailed in our textbook, students with a similar background to me still had collectivist tendencies; and if I had to guess, I would as well. From this chapter, I learned that in “collectivist” societies, you are more likely to find dissonance-reducing behavior aimed at maintaining group harmony and less likely to see people justifying their own personal behavior. People with a more collectivistic mindset experience will experience dissonance when their behavior shames or disappoints others. And I do notice that, when discussing my lifestyle choices with other people, more often than not that those of Chinese, other Asian, and Hispanic backgrounds tell me: “Oh, I could never. Ya know, [insert ethnic group] family.” And I say, yes, I completely understand. In my experience, food is a huge part of Chinese culture, to families. There are many little connections one would never think about, such as how someone’s parents might be offended if their child stops eating meat because back then, before they immigrated to America and during their childhood, meat was a luxury; and now, you have the privilege and opportunity to eat meat—and you choose not to? So in this case, I can see dissonance-reducing behavior in the third way—justifying our behavior by adding new cognitions. Maybe people are aware that eating vegan would be healthier, or that it would be better for the environment, but completely changing your lifestyle in that way would cause a lot of tension in your family. Rather than changing your behavior to bring it in line with your dissonant cognition, you choose to add new cognitions, that cutting meat out of your life would greatly impact your connection with your family, and connection with your culture, and that is something you cannot compromise on.

Additionally, on the textbook’s discussion of dehumanizing the enemy to justify cruelty, I found interesting connections. Animals are obviously not human, but I don’t think that means aspects of this kind of dissonance-reducing behavior cannot apply to the typical person’s treatment and thoughts toward animals. A typical human puts animals on a different level than humans; whereas people who are vegan for ethical reasons extend their compassion and concern to not only humans but animals as well—to all living beings—an omnivore is inclined to continue behavior and attitudes that lessens the worth of animals in order to guarantee a continuation of their animal consumption.

I also thought it would be interesting to examine my lifestyle through the justification of effort. This is when someone works hard to attain some goal or object, and how they tend to increase their liking for this thing they have worked hard towards. Meaning that if I choose to go through a demanding or unpleasant experience to attain some goal, which many people I know would consider veganism as—demanding and unpleasant to cut out your favorite foods, to give away your favorite expensive leather jacket or suede shoes, to give up your favorite ethnic food that reminds you of your childhood—to attain the goal of living a cruelty-free, healthy, and environmentally sustainable lifestyle, then that goal becomes more attractive. So maybe all the effort that I have exerted to reduce my dissonance, I use to justify my choices and actions.

I also thought the irrevocability hypothesis discussing the permanence of decisions was interesting. This idea of irrevocability posits that the more permanent and irrevocable the decision, the stronger is the need to reduce dissonance. So maybe because I view my decision to go vegan as permanent, I feel a stronger need to justify my choice and change in behavior. To borrow the words of a different section in the textbook discussing the justification of our own immoral acts, this is “not merely a rationalization of your own behavior but a change in your systems of values.” But, a lot of people don’t view veganism as a permanent decision, for there are many people who try out vegetarianism or veganism from anywhere from a day to a few years and still go back to the more normal meat-eating, omnivorous ways of the vast majority of humans. My guess is the difference in the core reasons and motivations behind people’s choices—people like me who’s decision to live a vegan lifestyle goes straight down to core ethical beliefs versus people whose choices don’t hold roots in their self-image. Of course, all of this is just my speculation and attempt to analyze a real-life example through a social psychological lens.

On overcoming dissonance, the textbook says that if we learn to examine our behavior critically and dispassionately and to admit when we’re wrong, we stand a chance of breaking out of the cycle of action followed by self-justification followed by more committed action. And as a disclaimer, I am not judging anyone for the choices they make in their lives. Having been on both ends of the spectrum, I don’t judge people for their actions and the beliefs they may hold. I believe that everyone deserves to discover his/her own perspectives and proudly choose his/her own lifestyle. Discussions with conflicting ideas don’t have to be militant and offensive; with the help of respectful and open minds, people have influenced me just as I have been able to influence them to reflect on their lives and reevaluate their beliefs on what is just and humane. At the same time, we can’t view the world and our actions in dichotomies; we must call forth the unique complexities of our inner thoughts, emotions, and morals. And I feel that a big part of that is examining our behavior and recognizing when two cognitions we have are actually contradictory and dissonant. For me, I feel a moral obligation to live compassionately for the well being of others and a global responsibility to protect the world and future generations from unjust harm. And the only way I was able to reach a point in my life where I could discover my core beliefs was admitting that with the knowledge that I now held, I had been causing unnecessary harm to animals, the world, and my own health for sixteen years of my life—knowing what I now know from social psychology, that process remarkably required a whole shifting and adjustment of my own self-image, all while maintaining my fragile self-esteem.

Seeing Black: An Overlooked, Incredibly Relevant, and Fatal Problem

Although I found this week’s article on the influence of stereotypic associations on visual processing to be interesting, the results and social consequences of this study did not surprise me one bit. The social consequences of studying the biases we as humans have toward Black male faces is incredibly relevant in the past, present, and future of American society, and I do not think I can stress this point further. I find it amazing that an article written fourteen years ago truly hits home in the headlines of today’s news and in the stories being told in today’s media.

Right in the first paragraph, the authors detail the effects of the stereotypic association of Black Americans with violence and crime on various variables, including “people’s evaluation of ambiguously aggressive behavior, people’s decision to categorize nonweapons as weapons, the speed at which people decide to shoot someone holding a weapon, and the probability that they will shoot at all” (Eberhardt 876). And right away, a million all too common stories pop into my head—neighbors calling the cops on a Black man trying to get into his own house, a Black child being held at gunpoint by authorities of the law for doing something no White child would be faulted for, a Black teenager being shot to death as he is in the midst of taking his hands out of his pockets and putting them up in the air as an act of surrender. And what do we have as a result in the face of all this tragedy? More tragedy. No changes, no consequences, more preventable death. And that is why I am so glad that we were assigned to read this article for class—these kinds of studies can have a real impact on society and how systems of power are led.

From a social psychological perspective, this article aims to prove that some associations between social groups and concepts are bidirectional, that “bidirectional associations function as visual tuning devices—directing people’s eyes, their focus, and their interpretations of the stimuli with which they are confronted” (Eberhardt 877). In the context of our example of Black men and violence, these studies aim to show that just as seeing Black faces can prompt thoughts of crime, thinking of crime can prompt thoughts of Black people. Thus, the “bidirectional” association: the connection between social groups and concepts goes both ways.

The sad truth is there are too many real-life examples to choose from to analyze through a social psychological lens, but the first story that comes to mind is the shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark in March of 2018—”Two police officers, 10 minutes, 20 bullets. Another young black man dead, this time in his grandmother’s backyard in California’s capital” (Del). The police showed up in Stephon’s neighborhood looking for a vandal, and fatally shot this young black man in his backyard believing he was carrying a gun. It was a cellphone. Watching police body camera and helicopter footage showing what had happened, I remember being filled with horror at how fast everything had unfolded. By the time the police officers enter the backyard, order Stephon to show his hands, seconds pass before one officer shouts “gun” and they both shoot 5-7 bullets at Stephon. By now it’s been 2 minutes and 50 seconds. They shoot at this unarmed black man 20 times. The New York Times reported that “the officers believed Mr. Clark had a weapon and opened fire ‘fearing for their lives,’ according to a police statement” (Del).

Connecting the paper we read this week with the story of Stephon Clark, I think the various results obtained from these studies really give us an understanding of how something like what happened to Stephon Clark is possible. Study 1 shows that by exposing people to Black male faces, the threshold at which they think they see crime-relevant objects with a compromised view (i.e. guns and knives) is much lower. The results demonstrate that Black faces “triggered a form of racialized seeing that facilitated the processing of crime-relevant objects,” meaning that after exposure to Black faces, it took participants less visibility of an object to detect crime-relevant objects, whereas after exposure to White faces, it took participants more visibility of an object to detect a gun or a knife (Eberhardt 881). Once police officers see a Black face, it takes them less time and less visibility of an object to think they’re seeing a gun or a knife. And these days, it’s clear that police officers easily mistaken a phone for a gun when it comes to a Black male suspect. When it’s nighttime and dark outside, as it was the night of Clark’s death, visibility is undoubtedly hindered and everything is sort of a shade of black, The only similarity I see between a phone and a gun in the dark is the fact that they both appear black and they’re both several inches long. From a social psychological lens, when these police officers saw Stephon Clark and saw that he was a Black male, and saw that he was holding something in his hand, without longer than a few seconds of thought, they were convinced he was carrying a gun. And continuing on with the analysis, it is entirely possible that these police officers processed faster that he was carrying what they believed to be a gun because Stephon had a Black male face than if he were a White male. When looking at a Black male face, a more degraded image can still lead to a classification of a gun when compared to exposure to White male face. And when a human being’s life is at stake, I really think that it is of the utmost importance that every person in America and every police officer across the nation takes it upon themselves to be aware of studies like this and to acquire knowledge like this. I can never know what it would be like to be those officers opening fire “fearing for their lives,” but I can’t shake the feeling that some officers across the nation and over the years have not been and are not acknowledging their mistakes and learning from them. After reading this paper, it seems incredibly important to me that we all acknowledge we might more often than not mistake a phone for a gun when the suspect in question is a Black male AND use that knowledge to act more consciously in the future.

Study 2 shows that exposing people to crime-relevant objects draws them visually more to Black male faces, that just the concept of crime can affect selective attention and cause participants to direct their attention to the faces of Black males 350 ms faster (Eberhardt 883). Just as Blacks are thought of as criminal, crime is thought of as Black. And as mentioned before, these bidirectional associations function as visual tuning devices that literally direct people’s eyes and focus and cause these police officers to think of crime and think Black, and to think Black and think gun. And I think this is incredibly problematic when it comes to police officers and the power they hold. Police officers go through our neighborhoods and communities with crime at the forefront of their mind on a daily basis. When these police officers were dispatched to this Sacramento neighborhood investigating crime, this paper suggests that these police officers are literally directed towards the faces of Black males faster than the faces of White males; these officers were drawn to suspect Stephen Clark faster that night–and within minutes he was riddled with bullet holes. In the past few years we have heard about racial bias training and being aware of racial stereotyping, especially in the context of law enforcement—but what about the equally dangerous implications that leads crime to be associated with Black faces?

The conclusion of this paper discusses how American society condemns the idea of racial stereotyping and associating Black people with crime but isn’t troubled at all by the possibility of crime being linked to Black people. But I think this paper has really shown the importance of this bidirectional association between social groups and concepts, that automatically associating a race-neutral concept like crime with Blackness has already had profound effects on the lives of Black people in America–and none of the guilty perpetrators are facing consequences more than some paid time off. Our society will not change if people constantly deny the biases and stereotypes ingrained in our individual mindsets and in the collective mind of America as a whole. As a person of color, I am tired of people getting unnecessarily defensive about race issues and automatically proclaiming, “I’m not racist” without even stopping to acknowledge the various privileges some of us may have. The truth is, all of us have racism and anti-Black feelings ingrained in us from years of prejudice and discrimination. The real task we face is confronting our stereotypes and automatic associations head on and acknowledging what the abstract of this paper suggests: all the associations between social groups and concepts that we have as humans affect our perception, visual attention, and ultimately our decision making and behavior. We must all take it upon ourselves to be aware, be present, and learn a little social psychology.

Works Cited

Del, Jose A. “20 Shots in Sacramento: Stephon Clark Killing Reignites a Furor.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Mar. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/28/us/sacramento-stephon-clark.html.

Eberhardt, J., Goff, P., Purdie, V., Davies, P., & Dovidio, John F. (2004). Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(6), 876-893.

Pondering Prosocial Behavior

Looking at prosocial behavior this week, I found all the different explanations and perspectives very interesting. I find myself pulled to a few of the different facets of prosocial behavior, including the evolutionary perspective of kin selection, Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis, and the connection between personal qualities and prosocial behavior.

For some reason, I have always been quite fascinated with the evolutionary branch of psychology. I guess it is just interesting to learn how certain aspects of our social behavior may have formed because natural selection favors genes that promote our survival. From this chapter, I am specifically intrigued by the idea of kin selection, the idea that behaviors that help a genetic relative are favored by natural selection. The theory that kin selection is ingrained in human behavior might sound obvious to a lot of people, for it might seem undoubtedly clear that one would save a family member over a friend or a stranger (I am sure hindsight bias may play a role in this); but I think there are a lot of modern-day scenarios that make me question how they fit into the idea of kin selection. In a typical hypothetical survival scenario, I certainly think it is ingrained within us, whether it is a conscious preference or not, to save a family member over a friend. But what about a more distant relative versus a close friend that is practically family, perhaps more “family” than that distant relative you met once? Our textbook did mention that we  would be more likely to save a direct relative over a more distant one; that is why I find these hypotheticals interesting to consider.

Or the scenario that first popped into my head when I read about kin selection–what about families with adopted members? I understand that the theory of kin selection posits its ideas on families and communities long ago, when survival was truly an urgent concern, but looking at it from a modern perspective, it makes me wonder. One of my closest friends is Chinese-American, and is the biological daughter of her two Chinese-American parents. Her parents adopted a son from China and brought him to America thirteen years ago; my friend and her younger brother were raised together in the Bay Area, California. I am sure that at one glance at their family, almost everyone would not be able to tell they have an adopted son. Looking at their family and many others in America and all over the world with adopted children and foster children, whether they are like my friend’s family or they more clearly consist of a variety of different genes and ethnicities–how does the theory of kin selection come into play not only in terms of survival/life-and-death situations but also just in terms of helping behavior? Many mothers with adopted and foster children view their children as their own, as if they were of flesh and blood. But that would mean that their actions, their helping and prosocial behavior would not depend on an instincts and genes as evolutionary psychology posits.

I also found Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis interesting and quite brilliant. To me, it seems simple but effective. The empathy-altruism hypothesis is the idea that when we feel empathy for a person, we will attempt to help that person for purely altruistic reasons, regardless of what we have to gain. If you do not feel empathy, social exchange concerns come into play. I do think that the more cynical perspective of prosocial behavior has merit–that no one ever acts out of purely altruistic reasons; even if someone helps another out of seemingly selfless reasons, perhaps they only acted so they did not have to feel the guilt of not helping. However, this idea of connecting empathy with altruism does make sense to me as well. After reading Chapter 11 and listening to both lectures on prosocial behavior, my thoughts turned towards a more unconventional classification of helping behavior–my vegan lifestyle. I live a vegan lifestyle, meaning that I do not consume any animal products: meat, dairy, eggs, honey, even things like carmine (a red dye made up of crushed insects). I also do my best to not use any animal products, including leather, suede, beeswax, and to stick to cruelty-free products. I first went vegetarian for ethical reasons—after watching a documentary that detailed the injustices of the meat industry and realizing that the vegetarianism my Buddhist youth group proclaimed my whole life might actually hold some merit, I cut meat out of my life immediately. But as I did more research and became immersed into a plant-based lifestyle, I soon learned about how going vegetarian wasn’t enough. The dairy industry holds just as many injustices as the meat industry does, and beyond that, being plant-based is more than just a diet. Veganism has many different facets, extending into the environment, health, and even social justice, which is why so many people emphasize veganism as a lifestyle.

From a social psychological lens, I first went vegetarian for what I hope was purely altruistic reasons. I truly felt and feel empathy for these animals, and the centerpoint for my decision was compassion. But turning it on its head, what if what really catapulted me to go vegetarian was because I would have been faced with guilt if I had not? And even extending this analysis into my current vegan lifestyle—altruism is helping others regardless of what we have to gain. What if veganism isn’t the positive something-for-all lifestyle that it is? What if instead of being the healthiest lifestyle, the most environmentally sustainable lifestyle (in addition to being cruelty free), veganism actually had negative benefits to me? Instead of being healthier, I was faced with health challenges. Instead of helping the environment, I was playing a part in the destruction of our earth for future generations of animals and humans alike. Would I still be vegan if, not only the only benefit was not contributing to the harm of animals, but I actually faced harm because of my “selfless” decision?

I always say that I first went vegan for the animals—the environment and health are just incredibly amazing advantages that come with the deed. From the perspective of the empathy-altruism hypothesis, if I do not feel empathy, social exchange concerns come into play. I will undoubtedly say that I do feel empathy for animals harmed by these industries, but I do still see the perspective of social exchange coming into play. Setting aside the compassion and empathy, being vegan benefits me. Physically, my health is far better off sticking to carbs, fruits, and vegetables over meat, milk, cheese, and butter. Mentally, I know I am doing everything I can to not contribute to the detriment of the world and its beings, and no matter how enraged or frustrated I can be at what happens, it must give me some peace of mind knowing I try my best. Perhaps helping the environment and being healthier are two personal gains in the game of social exchange. So, am I being selfless, “purely altruistic” as our textbook would say, or is the most compassionate lifestyle I know actually a front for my own selfish gains? I do not have an answer, but I do find it interesting to ponder one of the pillars of my life from a social psychological lens.

Another topic in this chapter that made me ponder my vegan lifestyle as a “helping behavior” was the section on personal qualities and prosocial behavior and explored the question of why some people help more than others. On gender differences in prosocial behavior, the textbook stated that men are more likely to perform chivalrous and heroic acts, whereas women are more likely to be helpful in long-term relationships that involve greater commitment. It is common knowledge in the vegan community that there are a lot more vegan women in the world than there are men. There are a lot of possible reasons for this phenomenon—I have even read an article that discusses the connection between masculinity and meat and how that plays a role in exactly how the vegan movement is spreading worldwide. Regardless, if we view going meatless (and further, going without animal products completely) as a helping behavior of sorts, then from a social psychological perspective, veganism perfectly fits into what I learned from the textbook. Men may be more likely to perform short-term, heroic acts (perhaps saving an animal they see in distress), but when it comes to being helpful in a long-term way, women are far more likely to commit.