Rats And Mice: The Cognitive Dissonance Of Choice

31 Jan 2018

Rats And Mice: The Cognitive Dissonance Of Choice

A real internal conflict

We’d like to believe we have the integrity to behave in ways that align with our values, beliefs and opinions. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case if we experience cognitive dissonance.

What’s cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance occurs when there is a disparity (dissonance) between our behaviour and our values, beliefs or opinions (cognitions). We become torn between two conflicting thoughts. We feel very uncomfortable in this state and often sense the need to change something; to eliminate the dissonance and get back to feeling comfortable.

rat and mice, the cognitive dissonance of choice

We tend to only accept information that supports what we already believe and reject information that doesn’t.

A funny example of this concerns a psychiatrist and his patient

The patient was convinced he was a corpse. The psychiatrist had tried all kinds of ways to convince the patient that he was not a corpse – none of which had been successful.

The psychiatrist then came up with a brilliant way to prove to the patient that he was not, indeed a corpse. “Tell me,” said the psychiatrist, “do corpses bleed?”. “Of course not!” said the patient. To prove his point, the psychiatrist pulled out a needle and pricked the man’s thumb. As blood started to flow from his finger, the man looked shocked and exclaimed, “Goodness me! Corpses do bleed!”

To eliminate or reduce the dissonance we usually make a choice between:
  • Rationalising and justifying our behaviour (make our decision/behaviour right in our minds).
  • Changing our behaviour.
  • Adding new cognitions to the conflict in our mind that makes sense (as in the above example – corpses do bleed!).
Another Example

Jim believes stealing is a crime. A colleague of his frequently takes stationery from their employer. The dissonance Jim feels may be resolved or reduced by:

  • Adopt the belief that his colleague will get caught sooner or later and vow that he (Jim) will remain squeaky clean.
  • Start taking stationery as well, because as his colleague said, ‘borrowing’ is a good way to supplement perceived low income.
  • Think, “Maybe my colleague doesn’t get paid as much as I do and so he feels stealing is his only option.”
I have a personal example I can use to illustrate this.

I’m an animal lover. I believe animals have a right to live as much as we do. I’m always signing online petitions to save various animals from extinction and rescue others from cruelty at the hands of human beings. I often share the causes I feel most strongly about on Facebook.

However, during the winter months of 2016 had a couple of problems.

The first was that a mouse had invaded my house (ooh – a rhyming example). I hadn’t seen the mouse, there was just lots of evidence of his increasingly comfortable lifestyle in my pantry. Each time I’d done something to prevent the mouse getting into the pantry, such as blocking holes where it might be getting into the house, I’d take a deep breath and believe it had gone.

I realised I was just kidding myself because for several weeks it found some different food every night to get into and destroy! Apricot kernels, ground almonds, cereal, chickpea flour, millet, yeast powder etc. One morning I pulled a basket out, and sesame seeds flooded the kitchen floor! At that point, the mouse had cost me over $100 because of contaminated food that I’d had to throw out, and the new plastic bins I’d bought to put the food in – and it was still there!

So what did I do to get rid of it?

Well, firstly I asked it to leave. Then I told it to go. I know some of you probably think I’m downright nuts (but that’s part of my charm – right?). But if you believe – as I do – that we’re all connected, then trying to communicate in this way makes sense (if only to me!) However, when it got into a bag of Shaggy’s food (Shaggy is my parrot) I declared war! At $25 a bag, his imported food is anything but cheap. I bought traps – all the while hoping it would just leave.

The thought of killing it upset me, but the fact it was destroying all my food and costing me a fortune bothered me almost as much.

It must have been the lightest mouse in the world

It had been eating the peanut butter off the traps, and the traps hadn’t gone off! The little creature probably thought it had won a lifetime subscription to Club Med!

Despite this carnage, the mouse was a lesser worry than the second problem — rats!

There appeared to be one underneath the floor. It came at night and gnawed and scratched under the area below the fridge. One night there was some more scratching and gnawing on the other side of the house. I was hoping it was the same rat – but in reality it had probably brought a friend — and knew it wouldn’t be as cute as Remy in Ratatouille! I was aware that poisoning was the best way to get rid of them when they’re inside the house somewhere, but I also know it’s an incredibly cruel death. You can get a pretty good idea of the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing!

I was a nervous wreck!

A friend who was visiting one night told me about some mutual friends whose house had burnt down as a result of rats eating through their house wiring!

To resolve the cognitive dissonance, I felt I could:
  1. Modify my belief to, “All animals have a right to life — except rats and mice that invade my home!”
  2. Get some poison or more traps and justify killing them on the basis that I’m protecting my home and contents.
  3. Buy more plastic bins and accept that the rodents had moved in to stay!

It’s challenging to avoid cognitive dissonance. It’s recognising it and dealing with it that’s important. And it may take a lot of courage, depending on which choice you make.