The Discomfort of Dissonance

One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”
– Aesop (Sixth century B.C.)

The fable “The Fox and the Grapes”, written some 2,500 years ago, offers a classic illustration of cognitive dissonance. It follows a predictable pattern, one that you may have seen play out in your experience: something is desired, found to be unattainable and then criticized in an effort to reduce the discomfort of dissonance. It is for this reason that when people justify something that is difficult to accept we call it “sour grapes.”

Cognitive dissonance is one of the most studied theories of social psychology, perhaps because it drives a great deal of human activity. It is part of the human psychological immune system, the means by which the status quo is rationalized, even before it becomes reality.

I’ve seen this process work out in almost unbelievable ways. Friends who once shared my passion for truth fell short in their quest and then dedicated an inordinate amount of energy to reducing the discomfort of the dissonance between their deepest desire and the self-destructive path they chose. Work associates who held enormous promise based on their God-given talents but gave up short of the goal.

I have to wonder, too, if the contemporaries of many of the prophets throughout history met their fate not because it was predestined but because of cognitive dissonance. The status quo is well-defended and if anything, history reveals that people will sacrifice just about anything to ensure their personal comfort.

6 thoughts on “The Discomfort of Dissonance

  1. Ricardo B.

    Indeed there is something so mesmerizing to personal comforts. I’ve often noticed that many things that when truly questioned will either not make much sense or won’t have much importance, and can become staunchly defended if there is any personal investment in them, usually in some form of comfort. This can be anything; a particular tradition, some cultural norm, even a strange habit. And if you happen to disagree with this, people can cross you rather harshly! Loved ones can even suddenly throw you under the bus when they feel they have an audience that supports their comforts. I had this happen to be at a dinner party once, from a beloved family member! A bit unexpected, but perhaps really not so much given what I see to be two main factors.

    First, there’s a biological drive to belong and we model our behavior according to the customs of those that come before us as customs are often selected over generations, insuring survival. Seeking comfort can be seen as an ancient way of maintaining reproductive success.

    Secondly, and this is where it gets tricky, even as intelligent as people are, this in no way guarantees that behaviors passed down through generations are helpful. Once there are enough people habituated to doing the same thing, it becomes very deeply ingrained into the psyche, and thus becomes comfortable as it is familiar, and anything which opposes it is typically seen as a threat just because it is different. How was left-handedness deemed sinister? It was not recognized as the norm so it was thought to be unfitting, and because it was less common it produced a sense of something being wrong, however unreasonable that turned out to be eventually. There are far too many examples here so one can easily take their pick.

    The irony is where you mention that things that can be helpful and are a move closer to an ideal which would truly benefit people are often discredited without any thought, simply because they challenge the collective agreed upon norm – the status quo. The move out of the less than ideal can be discomforting, sure – at first maybe, because like I said it is unfamiliar. But any comforts that get in the way of progress is more like an anesthetic – it dulls the deeper pain of not doing something right, which typically shows up as a symptom somewhere in the person’s life: some imbalance, some regret, some long-held unfulfilled aspiration, which is the soul’s way of telling you to keep moving forward and stop looking back.


  2. Steve Ventola

    As soon of the elements of sour grapes arises in our minds and hearts we should take it as signal to recognize we are off of the rock of reality and quickly make amends to release whatever is causing such an experience. The further we go the harder it is to return to a state of naturalness. The status quo experience has accepted as fact that sour grapes is just part of the normal human existence. A life lived without the sour grapes of such things as complaint, blame and accusation does bring true comfort.


  3. Vincent

    People’s comfort zones are variously defined and heavily guarded, to the point where flagrant self-deception is the common state. In some cases the defense mechanisms are somewhat conscious, while in other cases they are thoroughly invisible to the person involved.

    One of the vital marks of character is the willingness to release bias where it is recognized and to be alert to evidences of self-deception. This also means one must, of necessity, be open to the disillusioning observations of others. While illusion and comfort may seem to be partners, they are actually partners in crime, and we do end up in jail for it!


  4. Coco

    When I see deliberate persecution of individuals or ideas I have to wonder what such a violent reaction is trying to cover up. What’s also amazing to me is the longer it goes on the more the accusers believe their own lies. Often the haters will devote their own lives to defending their shame, spoiling their own future as well. Aesop told many a cautionary tale and sadly most are still relevant.


  5. Lady Leo

    Great post! This is such a common occurance that it begins in early childhood. The dissonance could often serve as our early warning system, that we are off kilter, instead it has become the distraction from our momentary struggle or failure. It’s becomes the”look there’s a circus”, noisily trying to bring the focus of attention else where, far from themselves.
    One of the ways to inoculate yourself from this is to develop the habits of not judging and generous forgiveness. Both would make it impossible to take an attitude of hate or evil that is necessary to make the sour grapes scenario play out. In that case too an honest heart is developed and the shame filled heart that is seeking to hide itself in the sour grapes reaction never develops.


  6. Kierney

    The draw towards comfort is a deadly one and if there is any one desire that will rob you of the potential of your life and your purpose it is this. Being able to have a creative, fulfilling life requires times of discomfort, as nothing can happen without change. I am thankful to have friends and family who are not afraid of being uncomfortable and/or challenging the status quo. I find that the opportunity to move out of my comfort zone comes every day and I plan on taking advantage of that to live a purposeful life and to hopefully help others do the same.


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