Barbara Roberts, Homeopath

Cognitive Dissonance

As part of my certificate of adult and tertiary teaching we looked at various theories of learning, so that when designing teaching sessions we have understanding about different ways that people learn. This sort of things fascinates me, and there were a few that stood out.

One theory I have known about for years is Piaget’s stages of cognitive development which he published in 1936 and 1950. This describes how children go from sensorimotor functioning through to being able to understand abstract thought in teenage years. The key part of this for me though is how Piaget described learning – first they try to assimilate what they are learning into what they already know. When this no longer works there is a state of dis-equilibrium, so they need to accomodate this information and change their world view.

Leon Feistinger developed a model in 1957 called Cognitive Dissonance Theory. To feel comfortable, our beliefs need to match our behaviour, so there is consistency, and if there is a discrepancy then one needs to change. Any new information is sorted into consonant or disconsonant – ie that which fits in with what we already know, and that which does not. Too much information which doesn’t fit with our beliefs and behaviours is psychologically upsetting, so we need to do something about it. This could be drowning it out with information that does fit with our beliefs (ie going back into the echo chamber so we only hear what we want to hear), qualifying the dissonant information to make it less important, or changing our beliefs and attitudes.

Why is this important in Homeopathy? Because if you have come from a conventional medical background, or have a concrete scientific belief in just what you can see, hear, and touch then Homeopathy can be hard to understand, and so we have a lot of skeptics who say that Homeopathy cannot work.

When we understand cognitive dissonance this makes more sense. The suggestion that homeopathy can work, when they cannot explain a mechanism for it, creates such a dissonance that cannot be explained by their current world view. In order to decrease their psychological discomfort from this they need to surround themselves with more information that reinforces their point of view (and there are studies that are designed in a conventional medicine way that conclude that homeopathy is ineffective), and minimise the importance of the information (homeopathy is just placebo, they would have gotten better anyway). There are others who will instead “convert” to homeopathy because the only way for them to deal with the dissonance is to change their world view, and as Piaget’s model says, accomodate that knowledge.

To add to the problem, confirmation bias is another phenomenon where people will agree with and find compelling the knowledge that fits with their belief system, but dismiss and criticise anything that doesn’t fit. We all like to hang out with people who have similar beliefs, but this can act like an echo chamber where a particular point of view is repeated and reinforced without giving critical analysis to other viewpoints.

I would like to point out that these apply across the board, and regardless of the subject it is important to critically assess both sides of a subject, and listen to other view points, whether or not you agree with them.

It helps when dealing with people who have different beliefs, to understand what is happening for them. You can try and bombard them with information, but that will not necessarily “convert” them, instead that psychological discomfort will make them want to avoid you. What can be helpful is establishing the common ground, the areas where you share values, and then accepting your differences and if necessary establishing boundaries around these problem areas.

If it is within your established boundaries, you can always make suggestions for homeopathic remedies (or other complementary medicine), and then it is up to them to either take that on board or choose not to. Share your successes and what you have seen without expecting anything from them. The Greek philosopher Plutarch said “water continually dropping will wear hard rocks hollow” so every positive story or mention is worthwhile.

If you would like to learn more about different learning theories, check out

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