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Cognitive dissonance or a psychiatrist at Hay

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological theory which was first described by Leon Festinger and, simply put, is the state of having two cognitions (ideas) that are mutually inconsistent.  It is held that the state of cognitive dissonance is a very unpleasant one, characterised by psychological tension and discomfort.  The theory holds that we are as motivated to change our behaviour due to cognitive dissonance as we might be to act to reduce hunger. 

An example of this might be a person who has always been very opposed to extra-marital affairs.  If he or she found themselves having such an affair, this would be inconsistent with this attitude causing cognitive dissonance. At this point he or she would have two choices: stop the affair, or justify the affair.  We are more likely to change our attitudes and justify our behaviour, than alter our behaviour.  

This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view as we are programmed to develop a set of beliefs to guide our lives.  It is not beneficial to be so open minded that we would be constantly changing our minds as this would make swift action difficult.  To avoid cognitive dissonance in the first place we are programmed to have an in built confirmation bias; this is where we notice, seek and remember information that confirms what we already believe and disregard or minimize information that conflicts with our world view. 

For a gentle introduction on this subject listen to this clip on cognitive dissonance on the Today Programme 


Frontier Psychiatrist has just returned from the Hay Festival and in retrospect I can see confirmation bias at work in my choices of speaker meetings.  I almost entirely went to see people with whom I knew I already agreed, and justified this to myself on the basis that their ideas would useful as a source of further ammunition when arguing on the rare occasions when I get invited to parties. 

The only real exception to this was Cherie Blair,  wife of the former British Prime Minister, for whom I had a free ticket.  She makes me feel conflicted, which is hardly surprising as she’s rather conflicted herself.  She hates the press, but she wishes to use it to have her side of the story told.  She protects her privacy vigorously, but divulges cringing personal details in her autobiography.   She calls this autobiography ‘Speaking for Myself’ as if, as a highly successful barrister, she’s such a victim that she’s never had the chance before.  She’s a socialist, but she owns three houses.  And she makes her problems with being the wife of a head of state so painfully obvious; she publishes a book called ‘The Goldfish Bowl’ about previous spouses in Number 10.   Psychoanalysing this woman is too easy.  She also gave a really boring speech.


I was looking forward to seeing Gore Vidal, but he left me not just cold, but feeling soiled, such was his constant negativity.  He criticized John McCain for not attempting to escape from a Vietcong POW camp.  I don’t think that Vidal has any experience of such scrapes, so should hold counsel until he’s tried himself.  My brother asked him whether he had any ‘words of advice for young people‘.  ‘Grow up’ said Vidal.  Perhaps it’s too late to take his own advice.

Much smaller fry was Mark E. Smith of The Fall.  The interviewer was Jon Gower. I’ve never heard of him either.  Early on during the interview Smith accused Gower of not having read this autobiography.  Gower had to admit that he hadn’t finished it, but to show he’d read what he had carefully, asked the most in depth and convoluted questions, most of which were answered by Smith with a simple ‘yeah’ followed by tittering from the audience.  I spent most of the interview wanting to jump on the stage and wrestle the microphone away from him.  Every psychiatrist knows – the best way to get someone’s story is to ask open questions.  A breath test for Smith and full refund to the audience wouldn’t have been out of place either. That was my question about the security guards.

Christopher Hitchens did nothing to quash allegations of a drink problem by coming to the stage with a glass of wine.  Apart from his rudeness towards a audience questioner, which boarded on bullying, we were in complete agreement.  Further agreement but slight boredom accompanied talks by Naomi Klein and Joseph Stiglitz.  It’s not always a good idea to read the corresponding books before seeing a talk, as the speakers just regurgitate the same facts you’ve already read.  Will Self as ever didn’t disappoint.  My brother got further coverage in the press by asking him about his love of long and seldom used words.

For us the festival ended with Rob BrydonOliver James says that he’s rarely met a comedian who’s not personality disordered or depressed.  I hope he’s wrong in Mr Brydon’s case, as he seems so very nice and so very amusing.  

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  1. No, it was raining the entire time I was there alas.