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Dissonance and Deniability - Our Minds Are Slipping Away

“Tentatively, Ali approached the colossal stone structure, and pressed his palm into its dark smooth surface - bowing his head, he uttered, ‘Open, Sesame.’…”
“With great ease, curiosity enveloped Pandora. After surveying the empty space behind her, she crouched, and tipped the engraved lid of the box open…”

After a semi-sleepless night, we rolled over groggily, eyes clouded with fatigue.

We brushed our palms on our bed-side cabinet and our fingers, sprawling and feeling, forage for our phones. Time was hung - our alarms have not yet rung. Like the sagas and stories of times long gone, we embraced the oncoming onslaught of knowledge. One tap and we are in. Out rush the evils and plagues; in our head goes, entering the cavern - the silks and precious stones glisten temptingly. Deliciously scandalous claims and shiny stories are simply too hard to resist.

It is estimated that as of October 2023, there were 5.3 billion internet users and 4.95 billion social-media users globally, totalling up to 65.7% and 61.4% of Earth’s human population, respectively. Our world is undeniably grounding itself into the virtual, hence, for a significant portion of people, there is no choice other than to be tailed by currents of information constantly in flux, all neatly compartmentalised into a mid-sized back pocket. With untold data at our fingertips, and the hollering, dissonant opinions of every human on Earth trailing our morning, breaks and tired evenings, it is no surprise people now absorb greater quantities of information at a faster rate, than ever before - especially that surrounding politics and current affairs.

Often woeful, many choose to avoid such matters altogether, typically through refining their feeds and avoiding any relevant discourse - ignorance is bliss, after all. Others, in response to having acquired such troubling information, choose to alter their behaviour in a more defiant, dynamic manner, taking once more to the digital world to cast benevolent changes in wider society.

A number of rallying expressions, hashtags and notions have recently wrestled their way into the layman’s online and in-person lexicon, as consequence to the overwhelming series of events that have rightfully begun to be illuminated on the world stage. #freepalestine, #MeToo and ‘There is no planet B’ (adopted from Berners-Lee handbook) have amassed countless instances of usage online, garnering a great deal of attention to their respective causes. Countless changemakers charge into the arena of legislation, social media and grassroots activism to help keep pressing campaigns from grinding to a halt - the clockwork ticking time forward, alas, is mechanical, not automatic.

The rest of us, the notably massive majority of us, observe, from a safe, hazardless distance, the changing landscape of our surrounding politics and society. Knowledge is admittedly both ‘power’ (Francis Bacon) and desired by ‘all men through nature,’ (Aristotle), but is heavy on the head.

For swathes of reasons, many come to the conclusion that individual efforts are incapable of fuelling change. Soon, after adopting a lurking sentiment of gloom, especially after having ‘doomscrolled,’ it is accepted as unalterable fact that chances of long-lasting, meaningful changes for the better are slim; especially not in today’s evidently trying times.

The looming gates grate open every morning as we log back online, and the piling pieces of news, networking, opinions, posts and promotions weigh on our minds. Our spirits are dampened daily. There is little with which we can alleviate the discomfort with, not unless we package and place the gnawing feeling that the Fall of Rome is upon us, aside.

So, which remedy to handle navigating the contemporary world resonated with you?

Whatever avenue you venture down, you choose it believing it to be an instrument of survival in a grotesque, often abused system, or in the face of several uncontrollable turns for the worst.

The cognitive dissonance theory (CDT) refers to the discomfort we feel as a scraping, psychological clash occurs between information we ingest and our beliefs, and was first documented, named and theorised by Leon Festinger (1957). Founded in social psychology, it has been explored in numerous fields, including marketing, politics and sports psychology, due to its far-reaching applications.

Numerous factors (e.g. aiming to maintain close relationships, guilt upon receiving new information, addiction etc.) influence which one of the four primary means of resolution people select to reduce the tension felt, which are:

1. To change one’s beliefs

2. To change one’s behaviours

3. To add new beliefs

4. To trivialise the importance of the relevant beliefs.

An extremely common example used when explaining CDT in practice is that of smokers and their conflicted beliefs; in respect to the modern day, I instead encourage you to think of those who vape.

A vaper acquires the knowledge that e-cigarettes contain acrolein and formaldehyde, both of which boast strong links to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. In response to this new information, the vaper could choose to either: change their behaviour and quit vaping, change their beliefs in the face of new data (e.g. search for claims of e-cigrattetes being harmless to feel less conflict) trivialise relevant beliefs (e.g. it’s not that bad, facts have been proven false before) or to add new beliefs to the balance (e.g. It’s OK - I exercise regularly, eat healthily and I don’t drink much - I am healthy).

There are countless familiar examples of cognitive dissonance many of us have faced - the meat eaters’ dilemma surrounding treatment of livestock and the financially-limited climateer’s quandary of wearing cheap, stylish fast-fashion are widespread cases of such. CDT arises out of the premise that a thinker requires cognitive consonance - where beliefs and actions are consistent with one another. On relatively trivial matters, cognitive dissonance can be easily dissected, understood and managed.

But what do we do when dissonance arises out of action and information out of our control?

Cognitive dissonance has such broad implementations; naturally, its consequences vary severely depending on whether it is existing on an individual or society-wide level, and the question further complicates itself where politics come into play.

On an individual level, cognitive dissonance is commonplace, typically harmless, and does not point towards a larger, overarching conspiracy, instead existing as a consequence of a thinker questioning their beliefs and their behaviour. A thinker’s actions are under their control in most circumstances; although behavioral change is the least adopted method of resolution, it typically yields cognitive consonance most frequently.

However, if inaction caused by psychological turbulence proves to be of service to marketing, media, and government men alike, expect it to be weaponised.

When an individual feels unable to change one of their cognitions, attitude change occurs instead; the beliefs of the thinker shifts in order to align more closely with the inconsistency. This places many in precarious positions when the uncontrollable cognition stems from concerning current affairs or rigid, institutional desicion-making. To combat the bleak acceptance that countless, consequential decisions will be made with no input from the ‘little man,’ a person will often adopt inaction as a cure to the dissonance plaguing them.

On a society-wide plane, where millions behave similarly, either trivialising or changing beliefs to soothe internal dissonance and restore consonancy, a population is left pitifully vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of the state.

Spirits are shattered repeatedly by the sheer mass of irresponsible legislation and mass-media consumption. The zeitgeist of the era has mellowed and shrivelled - we are a long way away from times of old where patriotism was the norm nation-wide. The engineered, force-fed belief that we, the people, are powerless, leaves only a minority heeding calls to resist against the damning behaviour of the institution.

Instead of discarding the dissonance as swiftly as possible, I urge you instead to hold the burning.

Let it sear into the palm of your hand.

Every time we believe on a personal level we have extinguished the flame, we have only thrown fuel into the house fire we are caught in - by relinquishing our collective power, we surrender to the age-old narrative that we are to be fearfully huddled under the black boot of the ‘elite’. We wonder, ‘This make-shift shelter, dark and dingy, damp and cold - is this their mercy or is it a mockery of us? '


Joanna Afroozi, East Londoner, studies English, Production Management and Development. Paying respect to her aim of enriching Western anglophone cinema with multilingual stories of various peoples, she is working to become a screenwriter and director. She enjoys writing to explore various concepts, especially focusing on education, politics, and language, and hopes to implement her musical background and love for linguistics and history in narratives she explores both on screen and on paper.

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