Cognitive Dissonance

01/10/2016 - Captain Bunn
Cognitive Dissonance

When we first consider a situation, we may be able to look at both sides, pro and con. But, once a decision has been made, seeing both sides becomes more difficult. The tendency to stick by a decision — sometimes to the point of being closed to compelling new contradictory information — is called cognitive dissonance.

Research last year showed that 18% of the population in the U.S. have conservative views and nothing — absolutely nothing — can penetrate their thinking to cause them to change their view. Similarly, another 18% of the population have liberal views, and their views are also absolutely fixed.

That totals 36 percent (18% plus 18%) leaving 64% of the population which can remain open to new information, even after making a judgement. What this means is, cognitive dissonance for most of the population is not so strong as to be carved in stone in a person’s thinking.

Speaking of that 36% whose views are, or become absolutely fixed, I believe they are fixed in their thinking due to developmental arrest. New theories in psychology suggest an explanation.


When a child is two years old, what is in its mind and reality are equivalent. Psychologists call this ‘psychic equivalence’; what is in the ‘psyche’ and reality are believed to be one and the same.

The two year-old lives in a world of absolutes. Lacking teeth, a young child cannot chew food as an adult can. Similarly, the mind cannot chew up and process information that a mature adult mind can. Just as young children need baby food, they need an overly simplified world.

No parent is going to tell a young child it is safe to put its finger in an electric socket if the switch is off, but unsafe if the switch is on. Parents just tell the young child that that electric sockets are dangerous.

But as mind develops, there is a possibility of being able to take in a more complex world. Psychic equivalence yields to awareness that reality and what is in the mind can be different. It appears this develops in connection with the child’s ability to pretend, for in pretending, the child holds views which are intentionally not matched up with reality.

Learning to pretend is supposed to develop between two and three. Learning to pretend, the child learns what it holds in mind is not absolute. And, as the child develops, so does an appreciation that other minds can contain a different version of reality than ones own.

But between two and three, a normal child can, while engaging in pretend, become overwhelmed with fear. The child loses sight of that what is in the mind is being pretended. By the age of three, most children can hold on to the idea that what is going on is only pretend.


I’m sure that some, perhaps most, and perhaps even all, of the cases where flight anxiety persists are cases in which that locked-in thinking is so established that the person has no alternative but to believe what is in the mind is what is really going on, when flying. And, just like politics, no amount of compelling evidence to the contrary can change the way they see it.

People whose thinking is locked simply insist that flying is dangerous. Facts cannot move their thinking. They will not fly. Such a degree of mental rigidity is the result of early developmental arrest, between the two and three years of age.


When we are on the ground, where we have access to control, and we have access to people who can help us feel calm, we can understand that flying is safe.

Here the person has made the developmental passage to knowing that what is in the mind is not always real. There was a time when psychologists believed that once a developmental milestone had been passed, that development was established. We now know that it is always a struggle to hold on to our developmental achievements. Under stress, we can slide from an ability to do mature thinking back to an earlier immature way of thinking.

When, during our formative years, we did not build in a solid ability to independently regulate emotional states, stress can easily push us — temporarily — back to thinking with no more sophistication than we did at age two. This means that under stress, the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality — an ability we developed at age three — can be lost.

When removed from the ground, when access to control is lost, and when out of contact with people who exert a calming influence, it is possible to regress to the level of a two year-old. When this happens, we become unable to distinguish our fantasy that the plane is about to fall with the reality that turbulence does not cause the plane to fall. Anxiety can cause us to regress to two year-old psychic equivalency in which reality and imagination are merged into one.

No matter how compelling the information that the plane cannot fall due to turbulence, the person may be unable to see any other possibility when reduced to the level of a two-year-old by having ones emotional underpinnings removed.


But if the child is insecure and has relatively little ability to independently calm itself in the face of pretended threats, the child cannot establish that developmental advancement. A world without absolutes is too threatening. These children do not develop the ability to recognize the difference between what they hold in their mind and reality. To them, what they think and reality remains one and the same. It seems to me that this child, too anxious to ‘play’ with the world, needs a solid and unalterable world, and as an adult, will seek — and try to believe in — absolute safety.


In the first year of life, we believe the young child organizes the world around what feels good and what feels bad. And, since time is not yet conceptualized, when feeling good, bad does not exist. Likewise, when feeling bad, good does not exist. For the very young, it is ‘all or nothing’.

In setting up a research study, such as a study of customer satisfaction, a formula called chi-square is used when the study asks subjects to check one of only two boxes, such as ‘satisfied’ and ‘unsatisfied. More sophisticated research uses a ‘Likert Scale’ with five ‘boxes’, such as highly satisfied, somewhat satisfied, neutral, somewhat unsatisfied, and highly unsatisfied. Even more sophisticated research might ask for a rating from one to ten, or one to one-hundred.

But when it comes to ‘life-and-death’ issues, we can’t use a Likert Scale. We are not somewhat alive, or somewhat dead. It is a chi-sqare situation: dead or alive. And so, when it comes to safety, which is obviously relative, we have a problem. We have trouble when trying to fit a two box ( alive or dead) situation into a world in which safety is relative, such as highly safe, somewhat safe, neutral, somewhat unsafe, and highly unsafe.

We could try switching to a zero to 100 scale, with zero as totally dangerous and 100 as absolutely safe. But what, if anything, is absolutely safe? Lets consider driving 10.8 rural Interstate miles. Lets also consider taking a flight. According to research, both are approximately 99.999992% safe.

To see the research select here.

It is interesting how we deal with this problem. Since there is no absolute safety upon which to establish a 100% feeling of security, we turn to two possible ways to deal with the questions:


If we look squarely at the 0.000008% chance of disaster whether we drive 10.8 miles or take a flight (distance doesn’t matter significantly since accidents are mostly during takeoff and landing) we have no basis for feeling secure — unless we can move the situation from a ‘roll of the dice’ to one we control. Remember the movies in which the casino cheats the gamblers by having loaded dice, or a roulette wheel that can be controlled? Well, if we can control the car, we may be able to establish a belief that we have 100.0% safety.

What isn’t appreciated in that logic is that the statistics are a reflection of the fatal accident rate by drivers who, like us, believed they had control. enough to remove their situation from chance. Sure, if someone comes at us, we can turn the wheel to the right. But what if there is a trailer truck, a guard rail, or an embankment there, leaving no room for escape? As long as there are trailer trucks, guard rails, embankments, the roll of the dice can’t be avoided.


I had a client whose mother wanted to buy a new range, one with a glass top. But she wanted to be able to use her collection of pots, all of which had slightly rounded bottoms. She asked the appliance salesman if she could use the pots that she had; she was told that she could not use them, and would have to invest in new flat-bottomed ones.

She went to one appliance dealer after, each time asking the same question, and each time getting the same answer. Finally, when a salesman lied to her, assuring her she could use her existing pots, she bought the new range.

If someone assured you that a particular flight is absolutely safe — and you believed them — you could take the flight without anxiety just as my client’s mother bought that glass top range without anxiety.

Similarly, we could refuse to fly on an airline that is only 99.999992% safe. We could, like the character played by Dustin Hoffman in ‘Rainman’, refuse to fly except on Qantas because, to him, Qantas as 100.0% safe. Qantas had never crashed.

As a new second lieutenant in the Air Force, I was sitting at the Officer Club bar when a seasoned pilot sitting next to me said, ‘How about a game of ‘Liar’s Dice?’ I said, ‘Sure. Why not? I’ve never lost.’ He replied, ‘If you haven’t lost, you haven’t played enough,’ and proceeded to beat me repeatedly.

This, of course, ignores the fact that Qantas has only flown 1.020,000 flights. Since, on average, there is only one fatal accident per 12,500,00 flights, one could argue that Qantas is no safer than any other airline. They just haven’t flown enough.


When anxiety is an issue, many of us get rid of anxiety through illusion. Typical illusions are:

  1. religion: ‘God will protect me.’
  2. delusion: ‘I am immortal.’
  3. obsessive-compulsive: ‘I am safe if I maintain my ritual.’
  4. magic: ‘I have a guardian angel.’
  5. charm, talisman, totem: ‘This object protects me from all evil.’

If the ability to deal with anxiety and with uncertainty did not get built into us when we were very young, flying can be difficult. Why? Because, though we may be able to maintain a sense of calm and security on the ground, flight takes away control as a means of feeling secure. Without control, we are confronted with the notion that we are subjecting ourselves to a roll of the dice.

We have two sides of the brain, left and right. The right side of the brain, which is visual, cannot visualize a 0.000008% chance of fatality. The right side of the brain does ‘two-box’ chi-square thinking: safe and unsafe. And since absolute safety is ruled out, the only other possibility is absolute unsafety.

The left brain can do the math. The left brain can understand there is a 0.000008% chance of fatality. That is ‘near certainty’ of safety. But the right brain, when engaging the idea of one chance in several million, visualizes — not the millions of successful flights but — the crash. If there were good communication between the two sides of the brain, the two ways of thinking would balance each other.

But if the ability to deal with anxiety and with uncertainty was not built in in such a way as to integrate the operation of the left brain with the operation of the right brain, the right brain simply triggers stress hormones. The pulse rate increases. The breathing rate increases. Tension is produced in the body. The mind focuses on the threat. All this is part of the normal ‘fight or flight response.

At this point, the game is still not lost. One image of disaster in the right brain triggers only one shot of stress hormones, enough to take a person — on a scale of zero to ten — to a level of two. But if this first image of an air disaster is associated with several other images of air disasters, or images of never seeing loved ones again, a chain reaction of images takes place, each triggering enough stress hormones to take a person up two more levels. Such a cascade of stress hormones can, simply when thinking of flying, bring a person almost to panic and a feeling that to fly means certain death.


For the person who is locked in the belief that flying is dangerous, nothing can be done. If the ability to think like a three-year old was never developed, nothing will not make a significant difference. What is in such a person’s mind is their reality, and their reality is fixed. Facts will not penetrate such a mind.

Persons who have — even if tentatively — made that shift from two-year-old thinking to three-year-old thinking have more flexibility of mind. They understand that — though flying is safe enough — it doesn’t feel safe enough.

With the strengthening exercise, we can help reinforce the person’s ability to maintain that three-year-old developmental attainment, even when confronted with stress.


First, as stated previously, developmental milestones always have some degree of vulnerability. Still, the degree of vulnerability varies from individual to individual. There may be some consolation is to know the ‘fault’ in the matter lies with ones forebears; it was their job to produce an environment which was safe enough and secure enough — emotionally and physically — to allow normal development to take place throughout childhood and adolescence.

When developmental achievements do not take place, or do not get solidly established, this strongly suggests that childhood was not made adequately secure by the parents. Security is not simply protection from physical danger. For a child to develop a sense of security, a reliable empathic connection is essential. The child who experiences little or no possibility of safety through human-to-human empathy, misses out. As an adult, to trust another person may seem like opening up ones self to being a fool.

A client told me, human relationships are like being on a trapeze. You on one, swinging back and forth; someone else on the other trapeze, swing back and forth. This client was a woman, and she was describing love relationships. She said, as she, the woman swung back and forth, the man on the other trapeze kept coaxing her to swing closer and closer. Then, he coaxed her to time her swings with his, so they swung toward each other at the same time. Then, he told her, when reaching the closest point, to let go, to fly through the air, and reach out for him, and he would catch her. After several requests, in spite of her anguished doubt, his promises to catch her won her over. She swung toward him. She let go of the trapeze. And as she flew through the air, reaching out for him, he crossed his arms against his chest, and lets her plunge.

So for her, the only safety is control, and to trust is to be a fool. If that thinking is applied to airline flying, anything other than terror when flying is foolish. But does that not completely ignore to compelling evidence that the captain and the copilot both are — not on a different trapeze but — on the same trapeze, or, in other words, you and those who are in control are in the same boat and have the same interest in safety.

Once you have the Strengthening Exercise in place, the only way to be in terror is to be unable to accept compelling facts. The challenge thus becomes one of how to move from what we call psychic equivalence (seeing what is in ones mind as equivalent to reality, period) to full recognition that what is in your mind and reality are not one and the same, and, in fact, may not even be close.

That can be a difficult pill to swallow. We are all, to some degree, invested in the rightness of our thinking, and to entertain the notion of being not just slightly off, but massively off, can be an injury to our self-esteem which we cannot accept.

So, we see there are two psychological challenges — psychic equivalence, and cognitive dissonance — that may stand in the way of flights free of terror.



Image Credit: yodiyim –