This is Your Brain on Drugs: Cognitive Dissonance

Holding Two Truths is Key to Understanding Diversity

Do you all remember the 1990’s ad “This is Your Brain on Drugs”?  The ad features a man breaking open an egg on a frying pan.  As he cracks the egg into the pan, he says the egg is a brain and the pan is drugs.  When he dumps the egg into the pan it sizzles and he says “this is your brain on drugs.”

This image is irreversible in my brain.  I could not forget it if I tried.  Why?  Because this message of drugs scrambling my brain has been drilled into my head since Kindergarten – I was part of the “Drug Free Class of 2000” and constantly saw advertising campaigns like this.  

Don’t get me wrong.  Drugs are bad.  

But pretend new data emerges that suggests that some drugs are not bad.  My brain would not know how to process this.  My brain would laser in on the fact that drugs are bad and any new conflicting data would not be allowed to fester long in my brain.  My brain would dismiss the data because it is not aligned with my pre existing core beliefs and values.

This is cognitive dissonance.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is the theory that a person cannot hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time.  When it happens, people try to change their beliefs, ideas, or values to be consistent.

This is why having conversations about diversity is so hard.  People want to stick to what they already think they know vs. explore new beliefs, ideas, or values different from their own.  Our brains do not have room to hold conflicting beliefs, ideas, or values.  There is only room for what we think we know to be true. 

Our brains have hard wiring that is cemented over time.  Instead of being flexible as we age, the brain learns patterns and as those patterns are affirmed over time, it becomes more complex to unlearn what we thought we knew to be true.

I was raised to be color blind.  

As a Midwestern US GenX-er raised in the 1980’s and 1990’s, our society thought it was helpful to protect children from racism.  Instead of talking candidly about issues involving race, we instead focused on the narrative that racism no longer existed.  As long as we do not see color, we cannot be racist.

We cannot solve problems we are not aware of.  

By being color blind, we are kidding ourselves.  Because of course, we DO see color.  Our brains recognize skin pigmentation differences as early as infancy.  It is the behavior that is the problem.  Treating someone differently based on their skin color is the issue.  And, if we cannot see color, we cannot be aware of the differences in treatment of people of color.

Children form racial biases between the ages of 2 and 4 and our beliefs, ideas, and values are well baked at age 12.  If we pretend not to see it, then we are preventing our children from addressing their racial biases.  Let’s teach our kids to be color brave rather than color blind.  Watch this Ted Talk to learn more.

Why this matters

What if we addressed cognitive dissonance with our brains?  What would that look like?  It would be a retraining of sorts to change our patterns of thinking from “either or” to “yes and.”  Anyone that has ever studied improv knows the power of “yes and” statements.  They foster creativity.  They unlock possibilities.

This reminds me of paradox.  The idea of holding two truths simultaneously.  By holding space for both truths, your brain is learning new ideas and new perspectives that might be difficult to process.  Diversity is not an easy thing to learn.  It requires us to unpack our perspectives and take on the perspectives of others different from ourselves.  

When we invite new perspectives into our thinking, we get better ideas, and we achieve better business outcomes because diverse perspectives yield more holistic and sound decisions.

How to manage it

It is hard for our brains to accept two conflicting truths together.  This takes some reprogramming.  

Some tips to reboot your brain:

  • Be patient.  Ease into this by practicing mindfulness and quiet time for a few minutes a day.  This gives your brain the energy it needs to build new pathways.
  • Practice makes perfect.  Ask someone about their opinion that differs from yours.  Probe for understanding.  Seek to understand vs. be understood.  Listen more than you speak.
  • Hold yourself accountable.  There is space for grace here.  Decades of programming will not be overdone in one day.  Engage someone in your journey and ask them to check in with you.  Journal or reflect on your journey.  Rinse and repeat.  Be patient. 

If you liked this post, check out our Next Pivot Point Diversity Training.  We meet leaders where they are on their diversity journeys.  Schedule a demo to learn more.