Negotiating Reality: Navigating Frustration Amidst Competing Truths

Posted On

July 1, 2023

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Cognitive Conflict and Survival Response Model

Frustration arises as a natural psychological response when our deeply ingrained cognitive framework comes into conflict with differing external realities, posing a threat to our understanding of the world that is closely tied to our survival. This conflict, a manifestation of cognitive dissonance, also interrupts our thought processes, diverting attention from our current priority goals. It forces us into a critical negotiation with our subjective worldviews, pushing us towards either assimilation or accommodation. This complex process deeply influences our understanding and interaction with the ever-changing world around us, demonstrating the pivotal role of cognitive dissonance and frustration in our personal and survival-oriented adaptations.”


In life, we all carry a set of beliefs and attitudes that act like a roadmap, helping us navigate our experiences and interpret the world around us. This cognitive framework, deeply ingrained and continually evolving, influences not only how we comprehend reality but also how we interact with it. 

The theory of Cognitive Dissonance, proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s, explains what happens when this cognitive roadmap is challenged. Festinger posited that humans instinctively strive for harmony among their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. So when we encounter something that conflicts with our existing beliefs – perhaps a friend’s political view that sharply contrasts with ours or a news article that challenges our long-held opinions – we experience a sort of mental friction known as cognitive dissonance.

To resolve the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we often rely on strategies that allow us to regain control over our beliefs and environment. This drive is tied to a psychological concept known as the “locus of control”. The locus of control refers to how much individuals believe they can control events that affect them. Those with a strong internal locus of control might actively seek information that aligns with their beliefs and avoid information that contradicts them, thereby reducing cognitive dissonance. In doing so, they often create what’s popularly known as “echo chambers,” environments where only their views and ideas are reflected back to them, thereby reinforcing their existing beliefs and perceptions.

But cognitive dissonance isn’t always an unpleasant antagonist to be avoided. Sometimes, it can serve as a catalyst for personal growth and learning. According to the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, when we’re confronted with information that doesn’t fit our existing cognitive schemas, we have two options: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation involves adjusting new information to fit into our pre-existing beliefs. Accommodation, on the other hand, requires us to revise our beliefs based on the new information.

While assimilation maintains our cognitive comfort, accommodation pushes us into unfamiliar territory. This process parallels the dual-process theory of cognition described by psychologist Daniel Kahneman as System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 represents our intuitive, quick, and automatic thought processes, whereas System 2 reflects more deliberate, slower, and analytical thinking that requires more cognitive effort. Accommodation is akin to engaging System 2, as it requires us to consciously and critically re-evaluate our beliefs. Although this offers a more nuanced and complex understanding, it can be energetically demanding and often uncomfortable, aligning with Kahneman’s assertion that System 2 thinking requires more cognitive resources. This cognitive expansion doesn’t come without risks. A significant shift in our beliefs can result in confusion or unease, especially if our new perception of the world is one we’re not yet equipped to navigate.

Navigating our beliefs and interacting with our environment are processes that underscore a fundamental human trait – the need to maintain cognitive consistency. Our drive to control our environment can be seen as a protective measure, a means to shield our deeply-held beliefs from disruptive dissonance. As we surround ourselves with affirming ideas and filter out contradicting ones, we construct “echo chambers” that reduce cognitive dissonance, creating an illusion of harmony.

However, the world is filled with diversity and change. When we stumble upon perspectives that challenge our own, cognitive dissonance arises. This can lead to a sense of discomfort and even frustration, as our minds grapple to reconcile our existing beliefs with the new information. Engaging in this cognitive struggle is a difficult but transformative process. It involves leveraging our locus of control, critically assessing our beliefs (akin to Kahneman’s System 2 thinking), and choosing between assimilation or accommodation.

This constant negotiation with our environment and our beliefs is more than just a dance—it’s a journey of growth and adaptation. Our beliefs are not static; they evolve through our experiences and our ability to withstand cognitive dissonance. By stepping out of our comfort zones, although disconcerting, we open ourselves to a richer understanding of our ever-changing world. It’s a testament to the dynamic nature of human cognition and our enduring quest for meaning and understanding in the face of complexity and change.



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