In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset.”
Cognitive dissonance refers to the inconsistencies within our beliefs. It doesn’t feel like it, but all of us have incompatible beliefs. The simple example that Harari uses in the book to demonstrate incompatible beliefs is the example of liberty merged with equality. At the extremes, these two values, which are central to effectively all functioning democracies, are entirely incompatible. On the margin, the two require constant trade-offs where one value is applicable in one situation but not as applicable in another. We argue whether one person’s liberty should be curtailed for another person’s equality, whose liberty and whose equality matters most, and what measures of liberty and equality should be the most important. There is no perfect rule for delineating between equality and liberty or finding the right balance and mixture between the two incompatible views. Cognitive dissonance is what enables us to manage.
“Consistency is the playground of dull minds,” writes Harari. Great stories involve conflict and challenges with what a character knows they should do versus what they want to do. Much of art is in some ways about conflict, overcoming limitations, and somehow trying to merge the incompatible. Cognitive dissonance is our ability to live with conflicting and contradicting views without recognizing it. It enables us to have complex societies and to pursue individual goals while simultaneously being dependent on others. Like in art, where conflict creates something more interesting and engaging, cognitive dissonance in our lives enables us to live richer and more interesting lives – even if those lives are based on incompatible beliefs, ideas, actions, and values.