You read an article about your absolutely favourite movie. It’s not flattering — it rips the movie apart. The article says the movie is…
….trite, overlong, hackneyed, and filled with cringe-worthy lines.
It argues that the movie contains….
….hamfisted and overtly political themes.
The author even…
…bemoans the generation that celebrates the movie.
Immediately, the synapses in a very particular part of your brain fire.
Something is happening, but you, such as “you” are, are not aware of it: your brain is trying to reduce the cognitive dissonance between this new information about the movie and your preexisting opinions and feelings about the movie.
Thoughts pop up in your head:
The movie probably offends the author’s sensibilities or it doesn’t align with his political opinion.
I was young when I liked it and it holds a special place to me, he and I are considering basically a different movie you think.
He’s out of touch.
He’s an idiot.
There’s no good reason why he doesn’t like the movie.
Mechanisms in your brain are attempting to save you from expending energy, thinking about his points, considering them. Your brain is preventing you from expending the mental effort of holding onto two contrary opinions or taking the time to properly evaluate this new information.
Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress we feel when we hold competing information, ideas or beliefs in our head. When we get it, we have an urge to correct it, eliminate this inconsistency in our brain. Clearly this is a useful apparatus. We can’t “know” two contradictory things to be true. Practically, we don’t know what to believe or how to act if we don’t know the truth of the matter.
So when new, contradictory information comes we evaluate it against old information, ideally using a rubric of rationality and empiricism. Of course we don’t always do this.
We don’t have the time to carefully evaluate each side of an argument or search the web for a counter-argument. We don’t want to or can’t expend the effort. We’re busy. Internal and external pressures abound. And indeed, the payoff may not be worth it. Why would you spend hours and hours examining the validity of a writer's opinions and reading other sources just to determine whether he was right?
So we end up doing the above, rationalising, minimising and ignoring.
But the fact is that we do have access to reasonable opposing voices that we should listen to. The web gives us access to a multiplicity of opinion, of argument, of counter argument. Information is moving thicker and faster than it ever has. We’re flooded with information that can and should cause us to have dissonant ideas about our values, beliefs, and actions.
We can’t possibly evaluate all of these sources, yet we also shouldn’t use poor reasoning or insufficient evidence to evaluate competing opinions.
Unfortunately, the experience of the web is unconcerned and even opposed to presenting balanced points of views. The common tenor among think-pieces today is one of polemics, of demagoguery. The internet think piece does not tell you to think, it tells you what to think.
But a nuanced delivery of information, however, can help cognitive dissonance act as a weighted scale of sorts. Encouraging users to interact with information in new ways can strengthen the framework of their thought.
Although I mentioned earlier that we can’t “know” two contradictory things to be true, we can be faced with two opposing ideas, and sort out which one is true (or more true, as it were). Doing this, however, requires cognitive dissonance to be built in to the very information design.
Let’s say you come across an article
As you read it something happens
Another article pokes its head in, literally (and figuratively) nudging into the user’s viewline. A user can see that there is “more to the story” just out of reach. They’re able to drag the screen over, and see the rest.
The article that is revealed contradicts the first in that it provides an opposing view, with a counterpoint for every point made in the first. Here, we are foisting cognitive dissonance upon the user.
Of course, users are not required to read the opposing article, but it’s very obviousness, it’s salience, increases the chance that an opposing view might be seen. Normally finding such an article requires intent on the part of the reader— this experience does not. Some might call this a “digital nudge”.
In essence, this is a dialectic forced upon the reader, rather than a point of view forced upon the reader. This dialectic creates a cognitive dissonance that the user must sort out.
A reader might be persuaded more by their own emotions, or groupthink rather than any more rational or empirical evidence, but at least they are being exposed to an opposing point of view.
Implementing this requires a change in how we interact with information, but it also, obviously, requires a change in the mindset of how we produce content. This may seem more onerous than it actually is. Wouldn't you want the ability to see the opposing side of any argument? If anything, I believe it is a business opportunity.
But there’s more than just business. A proper and full dialectic is a necessity of good media practice, one that is intertwined with a good society.
Facilitating this means empowering people with two matched, sound points of view and making it difficult for them to rely on lazy ways to reduce their cognitive dissonance.
And UX and interaction designers can help to make this happen. All they need to give is just a bit of gentle nudging.