Humans and primates are the two species which can reconcile contradictory ideas into something that makes sense and is useful to them. We call this cognitive disconnect. Faith in transcendent beings (God, the Devil, etc.) seems a no-brainer to many but a head-scratcher to others. Disbelieving climate change is another. In spite of the evidence (How could God let this happen? The Artic ice caps shrinking at alarming rates, etc.), we muddle on believing whatever it is we believe. It’s likely that you depend on cognitive disconnect every day just to get by. We just know something’s going to happen. Or we’re convinced that it isn’t. Interestingly, when we’ve got two equally good options (the world is ending, the world marches on), we tend to choose the one that we’ve chosen before (even if it’s never happened to us). Egan, et al give a good overview.
This is all good news for us writer folks. It’s the space in between the two beliefs that we can dig into. And more importantly than reconciling the competing beliefs or persuading a person one way or another, is to interrogate and activate. To interrogate is to ask questions: where did this person gain this belief? What the circumstances that were at work? How are those circumstances acting on the choices our story-people are making now? Who or what in their lives now are challenging a particular belief? What’s the cost to a story-person for giving up or taking on a belief? The possibilities are endless.
To activate cognitive dissonance, allow your story-people to use their contradictory beliefs to get what they want. Almost every story involves people overcoming. Think of the faith it takes to put down the bottle, to climb a mountain, to cut off an arm in order to live; to bomb for peace. To demonize for inclusion. To attack to feel safe. Again, the list is endless. Let people question and challenge these beliefs, convictions and the actions that result. Let your people make deliberate choices which defy the facts, the evidence and the data. To sum it up, allow your story people to use cognitive dissonance to engage with their present circumstances and to get what they want.
Watch out for upcoming posts on present circumstances, primary sources and other tools we might use to activate and deepen story elements. Go for it.