How often can you hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time?

Today is October 18 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often can you hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time?” If you read enough of the Navigate the Chaos posts, you will often see two opposing ideas. For example, one strategy people use to navigate the chaos is to never quit while others found quitting a useful approach as they translated their dreams into reality.

Believing that not quitting, and quitting, are useful approaches to personal and professional success might be too much for your mind. But that is exactly what some people rely on to help them navigate the chaos.

In a 1936 Esquire article entitled “The Crack Up,” author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation– the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the "impossible," come true.”

In psychology, this holding of two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time is known as cognitive dissonance. For example, you might believe you are a kind and fair person, so when you rudely cut someone off, you experience dissonance. To cope with it, you deny your mistake and insist the other driver should have seen you, or you had the right of way even if you did not. During cognitive dissonance it is common for people to experience mental stress or discomfort as they process new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

As Kristin Wong wrote in her May 22, 2017 article "Why It's So Hard to Admit You're Wrong" in The New York Times “the psychologist Leon Festinger suggested the theory of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s when he studied a small religious group that believed a flying saucer would rescue its members from an apocalypse on Dec. 20, 1954. Publishing his findings in the book When Prophecy Fails, he wrote that the group doubled down on its belief and said God had simply decided to spare the members, coping with their own cognitive dissonance by clinging to a justification.”

Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. When inconsistency (dissonance) is experienced, individuals tend to become psychologically uncomfortable and they are motivated to attempt to reduce this dissonance, as well as actively avoiding situations and information which are likely to increase it.

Carol Tavris, a co-author of the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) believes “Cognitive dissonance is what we feel when the self-concept — I’m smart, I’m kind, I’m convinced this belief is true — is threatened by evidence that we did something that wasn’t smart, that we did something that hurt another person, that the belief isn’t true. To reduce dissonance, we need to either modify the self-concept or accept the evidence. Guess which route people prefer?”

People often follow the path of least resistance, so they modify the self-concept in order not to experience cognitive dissonance. Since “dissonance is uncomfortable, and individuals are motivated to reduce it” the avoidance of it is the default for so many people. “When we apologize for being wrong,” Wong wrote “we have to accept this dissonance, and that is unpleasant.

If you fail to apologize for being wrong, however, and it is clear to everybody you made a mistake, understand that digging your heels in demonstrates a character weakness. While you may convince yourself taking a stand is a sign of strength, it is quite the opposite. You then have two choices before you: you either learn to process the discomfort of cognitive dissonance or risk others labeling you a person of weak character.

As you navigate the chaos today reflect upon the opportunities where you catch yourself saying “I’m convinced X is true” only to accept an opposing idea that illustrates X is untrue. How often can you hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time?