Cognitive Dissonance: A Justification for “Brainwashing”?

By Maxfield Gormley

My father’s mother, my mother’s father, and my employer for the previous four years cautioned my 17-year-old self to move to Los Angeles and enroll at UCLA. Their main concern: liberal propaganda. Each expressed in their own way that my “conservative values” would be challenged and that it would be difficult for me to retain my “identity.”

They were correct; my identity and my values were challenged when I moved to Westwood, but not in the manner they expected.

It is a common criticism of educators that their relationship with students positions them to provide powerfully biased influences. After all, neutrality must be quite difficult to uphold when one’s job is to “teach” facts and interpret them.

But are teachers the only ones for which this worry is warranted? 

Socialization is the idea that members of society adopt external norms, values, and ideologies into their selves, into their perspective of the world.

The field of sociology explores the MANY institutions, groups, and people who contribute to socialization, for which school is only a part.

While the three most senior mentors of my life warned me of southern California liberal socialization, they never warned me about, acknowledged, or addressed the socialization I had experienced from them or the life I knew growing up in a predominantly white, primarily upper-middle-class suburb of Boston, Massachusetts.

I write today on the subject of brainwashing, a word that is sure to evoke some very evil, coercive and unjust images.

But at a base level, what is brainwashing? It is the UNCONSENTUAL forcing of certain beliefs and notions onto someone. This necessitates that the beliefs are different from originally held beliefs and that those beliefs were intentionally placed into the target by someone exterior to the target.

While the intentionally motivating characteristic of brainwashing is significantly unique, brainwashing does have many similarities with socialization. The difference is that socialization feels natural and happens all the time; it is practically inescapable. The term “gas-lighting” has come into a sort of vogue in our Gen Z vernacular, often arising when a person wishes to “call out” someone for malevolently manipulating their reality. I argue that socialization has enough practical features of brainwashing to substantiate the idea that brainwashing already exists in common society. The difference in the intention behind brainwashing and socialization is the focal point of the debate. People usually contribute to socialization unwittingly; that is, they don’t understand that their behavior and modeling establishes specific trends and social facts that would not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they see themselves as living their lives, being who they are, and acting according to what they know or have learned. But the socialized facts benefit some, while they do not benefit others. That is why there are always advocates for change and those wondering what the problem for which they are advocating change even is.

In school, we learn about many worldly problems. The problems exist because people have learned different things to be true, and they are affected by different issues. Still, we are all forced to occupy the same spaces, share the same resources, and in the United States, advocate for change among the same political arenas.

The problems we hear about daily at UCLA rise above major, discipline, or the calling for which one might dedicate their working hours. I’m talking about things like Black Lives Matter, food scarcity, body image, and even mask protocol. 

Every quarter it seems I have at least one class that exposes me to debate on these issues, how the course material informs what we might do to solve them, and what currently sits as problems standing in the way of solutions. From the perspective of socialization, the roadblocks to solving these problems often have to do with polarization, the tendency for a person to see an issue as having binary interpretation. I must choose one, and the other I must therefore be opposed. 

The fact of polarization is that it is inherently missing the complete picture. As Ezra Klein writes in his book “Why We’re Polarized,” the idea of group identity and the security it provides is the main reason people feel they cannot and therefore do not work with those of differing viewpoints. The scariness of brainwashing is predicated on the fact that the information imported into your brain is false and malevolent, but just because polarized thought makes us want to believe some information is false and malevolent does not make it so.

If brainwashing via socialization is inevitable, then it can be used for good instead of bad.

The propaganda my early mentors warned me of did arise at UCLA. It came in the form of perspective incontrovertibility. The first meeting of the Bruin Democrats I attended was an information session on a voter registration event that was to be hosted sometime shortly after. A guest speaker informed the packed conference room of the procedure for asking someone if they would like to register to vote. At one point in the speech, the speaker mentioned something that made me consider perhaps I was being exposed to unrestrained liberal propaganda. The speaker said that if the person you asked to register to vote indicated somehow that they were republican, or something of that nature, to stop the procedure and wish them a good day. At first sight, this remark could have been made in jest; however, how the speaker said it and the context of how she addressed it in her speech as well as the reaction of the students indicated to me that this was not a joke; it was serious and championed. It was as if the remark was superfluous to the common sense everyone in the group already assumed. 

The concept of cognitive dissonance pops up in almost all aspects of social psychology. Cognitive dissonance asserts that when there is incongruence between a person’s actions and beliefs, one must succumb to the other. Most of the time, it is the belief that changes to fit the action because it is much easier to change your cognition about something than to contradict what has already been done or started to be done. In this way, just by remaining in that room with the Bruin Democrats, I was becoming more and more complicit with the idea of “light” voter suppression. Based on psychological research, if such conditioning continued, I would be more likely to condone or perform such behavior in real life and, when asked, provide a justification, even though my original stance opposed the behavior.

If a person identifies strongly with a party, a candidate, or a platform, it can become difficult for them to disagree when parts change. This is why my mother had such a difficult time deciding who to vote for in 2016. She very much disliked Hilary Clinton’s support of Roe v. Wade. Every year, she mentions the March for Life, a primarily Catholic event where people opposed to Roe v. Wade march on Washington to demonstrate their viewpoint. My mother, raised in a Catholic family and employed by the Archdiocese of Boston as a Pastoral Associate, a position that required a master’s degree in Arts and Ministry, has always favored the conservative stance of pro-life. Eventually, as she learned of Donald Trump’s sexual improprieties, she decided Hillary Clinton, despite her stance, was the lesser of two moral evils. She could not support someone whose living gospel seemed to condone sexual misconduct (a latent vote against the effects of socialized patriarchal behavior). 

But interestingly enough, her change of position came around the same time that many others’ changes of opinions occurred. It happened around the same time that the priest at our church spoke on the subject with similar evidence. I will not pretend to know what changed my mother’s mind, but I will assert that something exterior probably had some influence because something exterior had some influence to set her opinion to begin with.

The idea of a Tabula Rasa, or blank slate, is that a child is born without any immediate knowledge or notions aside from that which they detected in the womb or came inborn via instinctual impulse. Therefore everything from safety to love to perceived enjoyment is demonstrated through those who raise the child. This idea, as you can imagine, is contested. Science, after all, is a history of revision; Einstein’s theories are significant because they disproved previous physicists, just like Copernicus was significant because he proposed the earth revolves around the sun instead of the other way around. But aside from the debates, psychologists and sociologists in aggregate seek to support the idea that infants are impressionable and their guardians do influence them: “nurture” plays a role in the makeup of a person. 

Because people learn first from their parents, this socialization is simply understood as natural; people often do not recognize the arbitrariness of these lessons; instead, they will hold them dear, often because they hold their guardians dear. Socialization again comes in through institutions, the challenging of my ideas that my elders warned me of. But when people go to school, they also learn to question things because they learn other perspectives. Things they may not have thought critically about are introduced in a new critical lens, with the overall goal of looking at everything in your life with a critical lens. This attempt is to throw off the bounds which one was raised so that you can negotiate your own life.

As far as the psychological idea of cognitive dissonance goes, this is advantageous; perhaps it is even the “self-actualization” or “post-conventional morality” described by Maslow or Kohlberg, respectively. Suppose people do not accept that the actions and espousals they made throughout their lives can be changed without their “sense of being” changing. In that case, they will continue to allow cognitive dissonance to keep them shackled to the socializations they never challenged.

This challenge of socialization allows a person to remove themself from the mold of polarization. Theoretically, when people no longer see issues as negatively impacting their group and positively impacting a group that never compromises for your group, people should be able to rationally discuss issues and devise solutions that promote the values of equality.

But socialization does not simply change your values; it also changes your rationalizations. As the world continues to grow in connectivity, more and more different ideas take up the space of decision-making, held moralities, and other tenets of society and civilization. In this way, the small unit of the family or the college institution allows for places where people can live without the cognitive load induced by incongruence between action and belief. But even in these places, that is not always achievable, and indeed, in the scope of a state or a nation, these similarities are sure to be very difficult to uphold. 

Without delving too much into the structure of power, politics, or the different ideologies of what is right and just, I will simply say this: agreement will only come when we are all socialized the same and have the same needs. The only way this can be achieved is either through equality or brainwashing. The daily anxieties a person feels that subvert the inherently optimistic view of life we had as children where everything was new, exciting, and fun may never be mitigated. But through recognizing the role of society and the role of cognitive dissonance in these anxieties, and the fact that only through complete equality or brainwashing that these can be righted, we might be able to compartmentalize some of these influences and therefore free ourselves of the burden for which they place on each of us individually. For to fight the inherent is to fight a futile battle.

The title of this article asks if cognitive dissonance justifies brainwashing. I hope you have seen that the human need to feel as if one’s actions and choices match one’s inner beliefs, and one’s identity is a potent force. Social psychologists propose two fundamental social motivations, 1) to belong and 2) to feel accurate, consistent, and authentic. Cognitive dissonance is the instinct of the brain to maintain that second motivation. Socialization and our adherence toward it speak to our instinct to maintain the first motivation.

They are inseparable, just as school and learning about the world are inseparable from identifying problems and choosing your stance on their best solutions. 

If sameness is the opposite of difference, and problems exist because people have differences and therefore want and need different things, then equality in life or sameness in ideology is the only way for difference and, therefore, problems to abate. But what if difference was not a reason for opposition in recognizing and addressing problems? What if we were socialized to not only feel insecurity for ourselves and our group but instead insecurity of ourselves as human. 

If brainwashing is already occurring, what prevents us from brainwashing everyone to see the “us versus them” as humans versus existence, instead of conservatives versus liberals or poor versus rich. Humans are a social species; our social abilities allowed us to compete with much larger, much more dangerous creatures. Our social tendencies can unite. If we continue to unite in small groups, we will always have group identities and group conflicts. Cognitive dissonance provides a justification for brainwashing individuals to care about everyone in society, to see everyone in society as belonging to your group. Brainwashing might dredge up negative ideas, but in reality if we intentionally socialize a human identity instead of group identities, then perhaps the brainwashing, or rather, redirected socialization may be positive. Of course there is a vague quality present in this proposal. That is necessarily given, as the idea of a human identity is the main point, the brainwashing is simply a connection to help imagine how such an ideological change might come about. Afterall, if socialization is so powerful and so hidden it is certainly hard to change. Brainwashing is an applicable buzz word because it necessitates intention in changing these arbitrary rules of society, a nod on in the way of an agentic life-outlook, one that may seem to diminish when the rules of society seem to never be in your favor.

A therapist has to help others with their human condition. Therapists might specialize with different groups, but their training and purpose pertain to people of all groups. The same can be said of social workers and the goal of the welfare state. Suppose humans do have more in common than we do in difference. In that case, polarization does not need to be the lay of the land, and socialization does not need to be a tool for maintaining inequality and power. The change is in perspective; the change is in recognizing one’s humanity, accepting human weaknesses for what they are, and challenging yourself to rise above them, just as you challenge yourself day after day to get out of bed, write an essay, or floss your teeth. It may take energy, but at the end of the day, what is life but the negotiation of how to spend your energy?

For those who seem to have wronged you, it can be hard to approach them as a fellow damaged human, but they are certainly more likely to listen to you and be open to changing their stance (what led to the problem you perceive them to provide in the first place) if the atmosphere of interaction pays more credence to a united human identity than any factional group identity. Gas-light them into thinking you see them as a potential friend, and perhaps you will be such a good brainwasher to build with them a new narrative, one that transcends the socialization that can seem so overbearing.

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