How does a person get to be flat-headed?

Published 7:45 pm Tuesday, September 12, 2023

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By Lloyd Albritton


Renowned Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget coined the term cognitive dissonance, a feeling of anxiety or discomfort brought on by contradictory or incompatible attitudes or beliefs.  My mother referred to it as feeling  “out-of-sorts.” I call it “discombobulated.”  Parents often feel out-of-sorts or discombobulated when an adult child insists on living a lifestyle which they disapprove of.  It is an uneasy feeling similar to the ripples that occur when you toss a rock into a quiet pond.  It’s not a big wave of anxiety, but just a subtle ripple in our psyche of which we might be barely conscious.

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Piaget posed that this feeling of cognitive dissonance derives from two other psychological dynamics which most of us experience on a daily basis.  The first is assimilation.  When any new idea or concept comes our way, the first thing we do is to search our brain’s database to determine if this new idea or concept is something we are already familiar with, something that already has a space on the shelf or a label in our filing system.  Piaget called this a schema, an underlying organizational pattern, structure or conceptual framework of thought which tends to guide our behavior.  When a new idea or concept is input into our psyche through one or more of our five senses which is congruent and agreeable with what we already believe, which fits comfortably into our existing schema of things, we tend to slide that item right into place and keep going without anxiety or stress.  No ripples.

Sometimes when a new idea or concept does not precisely fit our existing schemas of things, we tweak or adjust the new idea a bit to make it fit and keep right on going.  Any idea or concept that does not fit into one of our existing mental schemas typically gets tossed out the back door and discarded as erroneous.  This generally impulsive response helps us to maintain cognitive homeostasis.  No ripples. All is well.  Everything is cool!  It is the preferred coping mechanism of most people.

Assimilation is commonly employed in the areas of politics and religion.  Many of us have firmly entrenched opinions and beliefs  (schemas) about politics and religion and any idea or concept contrary to those existing beliefs is likely to have a rippling, discomfiting, or troubling effect on our psyches.  This is cognitive dissonance.  We have discussed two ways to make it go away: (1) we can tweak the new information to make it comfortably fit what we already believe or (2) we can reject it as pure sacrilege and throw it out the back door.  Both of these options are a feature of assimilation.

Piaget suggested a credible alternative.  He called this third option accommodation.  Piaget said we can choose to accommodate new ideas or concepts into one of our existing schemas or even into a newly constructed schema.  Accommodation, however, requires more than just a little tweaking.  It means a significant change in the schema structure, a completely different way of seeing things. It means changing what we believe and how we behave.  For many of us this is not a ripple.  It is a tsunami.  Change?  Lord Forbid!

As you can see, accommodating a new idea may be more stressful (more cognitive dissonance) than assimilation?  Is it worth it?  Let me share a story.  Many years ago there was a moderately successful gospel singing group called The Oak Ridge Boys.  The group loved what they were doing and they had many fans, but financial success eluded them.  A friend suggested that they change their musical style to country music, a suggestion which they initially found revolting.  Nevertheless, they accommodated the idea and made the necessary changes and became a higly successful country music sensation.

Likewise, accommodating new ideas or concepts can change our individual lives for the better as well.  Trying a new food dish, for example, might turn out to be an absolute delight.  Going to a romantic comedy movie instead of our usual diet of kung-fu fighting and car-crashing might open up a whole new world of entertainment.  My wife has dragged me kicking and screaming to many of these and they turned out to be treasured additions to my list of favorite movies.

Even considering another person’s point-of-view on such controversial topics as religion and politics could challenge our intellects and improve our understanding of our own views.  In fact, open-minded and sincere discourse is always considered a part of scientific inquiry and is how truth is discovered and problems are solved.  When we make the decision to close our minds to anything new or different, believing that we already know everything that is worth knowing, that is when we stop growing as human beings.  Accommodation, therefore, is necessary to good human development and mental health.

Too much accommodation without scrutiny or filter, however, can result in a mind virus.  One of my favorite axioms is, “One can become so broad-minded that one becomes flat-headed” (when I try to visualize that I get cognitive tsunami).  These days we are seeing a lot of flat-headed people walking around with ideas in their heads that probably should have been measured and filtered out.

All of us have these schemas in our heads which provide a framework for building great and beautiful mind structures.  We begin to develop our schemas from very early childhood and build upon them as we grow and learn and mature.  Sometimes rigid schemas prevent us from accepting new ideas that would have benefitted us.  This is a bad thing.  Just because an idea is new does not mean it is bad.

Other times our schemas are the very iron rod of truth that we hold onto to measure and judge all the garbage that tries to squirm into our minds constantly.  This is a good thing.  Just because an idea is new does not mean it is good.

We are all besieged every day with new information.  Some of us have managed to build strong and healthy schemas in our minds that assist us in making good decisions on what information to assimilate, what to accommodate, and what to throw out.  When we experience feelings of cognitive dissonance we use these mechanisms to make those uneasy feelings go away. That’s how we reduce stress in our lives and find peace of mind and enjoy good mental health.

Others build their schemas on defective values and unstable ideals, often through no fault of their own.  When cognitive dissonance occurs these poor souls also make decisions about what to keep and what to throw away.  Unfortunately, they often keep the wrong things and throw away the wrong things and their cognitive dissonance evolves into a cognitive tsunami.  And that, my friends, is how a person gets to be flat-headed!