Cognitive Dissonance to Creativity

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who had very different views on the subject you have been talking about and, as the conversations ends, they ask you to “just think about it”?  Meaning, they want you to reflect on and consider their perspective. Or, maybe you said it to them. That request is easy to make. The actual process or action of thinking about a different perspective can be much more complex.

Core Beliefs and Identity

Our core beliefs are closely linked to our sense of identity. When we hold a core belief that is very strong and when we are presented with evidence that works against that belief, it can be very difficult to accept the new or different information, partly because it challenges our sense of who we are. The presentation of conflicting information creates a feeling that can be extremely uncomfortable called cognitive dissonance.

This dissonance is especially painful when conflict arises between our view of self and information that disputes that view. As human beings it is important to protect our core beliefs as one means of protecting our sense of identity, so we will rationalize, ignore and deny that which does not fit with our core beliefs. When experiencing cognitive dissonance the first impulse is to reject the idea or belief that does not fit with our experience, thus enabling us to stay committed to our beliefs.

Holding Firmly to Worldviews – A Natural Tendency

Cognitive dissonance is an important human behavior to be aware of when working with differing worldviews. As human beings, we tend to like order in our lives and are not keen to explore areas that might bring chaos into this ordered world. We are much more comfortable with holding on to what we think we know or believe than we are with challenging or exploring our beliefs to see what other possibilities might be available to us. We firmly hold on to our worldviews.

“We”, in this instance, refers to all of the participants in a conversation. Each of us has a tendency to hold on to what we strongly believe, to avoid anything that makes us uncomfortable, including holding opposing ideas. It makes it easy to fall into the trap of seeing the choice in front of us as either-or, or what we might call a false binary.

What if there was another approach? What if instead of seeing our choices when faced with opposing ideas as either-or we saw them as both-and?

The promise of paradox and integrative thinking

Parker Palmer, in his recent book On the Brink of Everything, calls this both-and approach as “the promise of paradox”. Roger Martin, in his book The Opposable Mind calls it “integrative thinking” or the ability to hold two opposing ideas to reach a synthesis that contains elements of both while also improving on both. We refer to it as a Worldview Intelligence skill. The skill to hold two – or more – opposing ideas in our minds and hearts at the same time, even though we might be uncomfortable with doing so, in order to invite, allow and explore other possibilities – the ‘both/and’.

A Key to Creativity, New Thinking and New Solutions

Palmer says that “Thinking paradoxically is key to creativity, which depends on the ability to hold divergent ideas in a way that opens the mind and heart to something new.” Yes, the key to creativity. When faced with opposing ideas, instead of rejecting that which disagrees with what you already believe, bring both perspectives into a possibility space to see what new ideas and what creativity might emerge.

To be sure, this is not necessarily easy. Being in a place of discomfort is not usually fun for most of us. It can feel messy and, at times, it can be discouraging. But it can also be a place of curiosity, creativity and opportunity, of another and a new way forward. Being able to hold multiple and possibly conflicting views is a Worldview Intelligence skill that can be a competitive advantage. Regular practice of this skill diminishes that feeling of discomfort as curiosity takes hold. It is something we work at each day. We hope you will too.