Cognitive Dissonance and Frameworks of Understanding

Anything that generates cognitive dissonance (this, for example) can be horizon expanding, because it is disruptive and gives an opportunity to think outside of our normal frameworks of understanding.

Because it turns out that we do many things on autopilot…because there is just so much to do from moment to moment…our brains are very good at extrapolating and feeding off of previous experiences; we don’t think about everything all the time. This is probably the cause of ‘silly mistakes’, such as getting simple sums wrong, or leaving out short words (mostly prepositions in my experience) in pieces of writing; our brain is on autopilot and doesn’t focus on all of the detail. This probably explains cognitive bias, and various other such things, as well. Our inner life doesn’t want to re-think everything all the time – too time consuming. The cognitive dissonance is like a tear in the normal fabric of space-time; a dislocation that gives access to an alternate universe. An opportunity to leap forward in learning, or to leap into another framework of understanding; to see things differently.

Framework of Understanding. My feeling is that we all have a large number of nested Frameworks of Understanding, that form the basis for our everyday actions and thoughts. These give us a basis for proceeding in everyday life. They include a mental map of the physical world around us (try taking a mental journey from your bedroom to your work place…it’s remarkably easy), that allows us to rush out into our familiar surroundings without paying too much notice to the detail…(driving on autopilot; at work already?). They also include a framework for understanding the people we normally deal with; family members, work colleagues…we learn how they behave, what they mean by that look or gesture, how we can communicate with them. This is one of the reasons that meeting new people can be so exhausting…we don’t have the framework for understanding them, and have to construct it in real time.

Of course, the place where we continually come across new things is in school. Each student brings their own collection of frameworks of understanding with them into the class. They will automatically add the new material to the framework that seems most appropriate. This is why it is useful to start a new area of learning with something that is likely to generate cognitive dissonance in the students. This then shakes the student out of autopilot and causes them to focus on the detail, and perhaps construct a new framework into which subsequent knowledge and related information (such as the next lesson in the series) will be incorporated. A leap forward in learning (?).


4 thoughts on “Cognitive Dissonance and Frameworks of Understanding

  1. bt0558

    Interesting and thought provoking.

    If I understand the post correctly, you are suggesting that when a learner meets a new situation with which they are unfamiliar they may well experience confusion. They will perhaps have to confront previous misconceptions and accomodate new knowledge or they may have to add-to/build on previous knowledge and assimilate. Hopefully the gap will not be too large i.e. they will be within their zone of proximal development.
    It is the task of the teacher to help the learner make the transition. For me this is teaching.

    As one trained in cognitive dissonance theory via Festinger, I see cognitive dissonance as more to do with mismatches and therefore very relevant to misconceptions and their resolution. Assimilating new knowledge in a new supermarket does not for me cause dissonance. When they rearrange your familiar supermarket overnight I can understand dissonance.

    I don’t say this just to be pedantic. For me this issue informs the way we need to deal with misconceptions which require a different approach perhaps to non conceptions.Talk about Piaget (assimilation and accomodation) or Vygotsky (zone of proximal development) sends some of the more pompous bloggers into a frenzy of criticism but in these circumstances I find both very useful.

    To almost quote St Augustine of Hippo…

    “There are three types of students, those who know, those who don’t know and those who think they know but they don’t”

    For me the third suffer dissonance, the second confusion and the first less of an issue.

    An interesting couple of posts.

    1. chemistrypoet Post author

      The cognitive dissonance doesn’t arise when in a new supermarket (that’s just irritation), but each chain has a very distinctive livery and uses the same signage in most stores. At first glance, the store registers as a Tesco (for example) and the brain attempts to go into autopilot. The framework of understanding appears clear, but it doesn’t apply. The effect is much stronger, I agree, when your usual store is rearranged overnight.

      We assume a lot, most of the time (and this serves us well), but often it doesn’t. I recently hired a new senior colleague, but things weren’t going well. There were lots of disagreements between us. Then I realised (whilst trying to sort things out with the colleague) that I had assumed that being experienced they had the same understanding of the technical tasks as I had. Suddenly, the penny dropped and I realised that this wasn’t the case. There had been cognitive dissonance; and I was attributing the difficulties to negative factors. This caused me to shift my thinking and to see our work endeavours in a different light: there is more variation in understanding of these technical tasks than my previous framework of understanding encapsulated. My new framework helps explain other observations with respect to other technical people’s responses to pieces of work.


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