11 Oct

Cognitive Dissonance as Part of Equality Work

Working towards equality in society requires many skills, not the least of which is the desire and ability to challenge one’s assumptions and beliefs.  Many people think they are flexible thinkers. However, their flexibility usually has limits. Most our cognitive flexibility is tested in neutral or non-emotional settings. Think of the 21st-century skills like critical thinking and problem-solving. Each of those skills requires mental flexibility. But, most of the problems we solve don’t touch our core ideas of identity. Truly working on improving equity in society is beyond thinking outside the box. It is about realizing the box is not a box at all.

Equity is being used here to cover issues related to diversity, access, and inclusion in order to create a society in which all people are treated fairly respective of who they are. All people have beliefs and assumptions that are biased. Many people are learning to reconsider some of their biases. But, they often only focus on conscious assumptions.

For example, they might learn that certain terminology they have been using is wrong, like Transgendered is not the correct term. But, many people don’t dig into the underlying unconscious feelings they may have. In this case, transgendered is grammatically incorrect just as Italianed-American is incorrect. However, the phrase transgendered sounds as if the state of being trans was an action or a choice. Being trans is neither just as being female is not a choice for people who identify as such.  For many people, intellectually changing terms is easier than actually facing their underlying assumptions. Therefore, someone who might use the word trans can still act in ways that are inadvertently or intentionally anti-trans. Most people have many unconscious assumptions about gender that are intertwined with their own identity. Being able to act in ways that are truly trans-supportive requires unpacking and facing these assumptions.

How do you do this? Firstly, seeing that your ideas are biased is essential. Comparing your assumptions with a contrary idea (i.e. an idea disruptor) is an important way to be able to face your biases. The contrary idea creates an unpleasant feeling and results in changes in attitude and beliefs, i.e. a cognitive dissonance. Without changing these underlying assumptions, you often still act in the same way you would have before facing an idea disruptor.

Most diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion training focuses on superficial ideas, and therefore does not result in changed actions. That is partly because facing one’s underlying assumptions cannot occur via external action. You need to do the work yourself. But, when you do, your actions towards equity will be transformed.



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