A Guide To Cognitive Resonance

"My brain is only a receiver. In this universe there is a core from which we gain knowledge, inspiration, and strength. I have not penetrated into its secrets, but I know it is there" -Nikola Tesla

We live in cognitive bondage. Adapted to heavy chains of defensive judgment. Convinced that they are needed for protection from others. Reacting to snap unconscious impulses without even realizing we are doing it. We have traded the ability to co-exist and see from other perspectives, for the protection of cynicism. We run others through a filter, always finding something to judge. We criticize in others that which we refuse to recognize in ourselves. We have been seduced into self-loathing by generations of exposure to a consumer culture. We have been trained to believe that who we are is flawed and “not good enough.” Fear of judgment fuels our insecurities, and drives anger into the center of every interaction where it simmers far below the surface until finally boiling over.

The Pedestrian Versus The Driver

There is a commonly occurring situation especially in metropolitan cities, which is rarely discussed. When behind the wheel of a car people automatically feel an immense frustration towards the pedestrians who don't consider your rush in their slow lumbering pace. But as soon as the driver is walking around on foot, there is a switch. The frustration is now directed to drivers who inconsiderately rush you across the street. Two conflicting ideas existing simultaneously in the same person “pedestrians should be faster and ”drivers should be more patient.” The same person is occupying both sides of the same conflict only at different times. Most of the time he or she will not even be aware of the cognitive dissonance inherent in this ritualized pattern.

If I yell at someone crossing the street I am placing the burden of my anger onto them. They can choose to throw it back at me and shout obscenities, which just makes me more angry. Or they can choose to carry it around until they unload it onto another individual later on. Thus does anger flow through the capillaries of the social body. To break the pattern, try to empathize with yourself from the past position in the cycle. Consider the ways in which you would've liked the pedestrians to consider your rush. Then when in the car try and remember the importance of having patience for those crossing the street. Both sides of the duality are capable of recognizing the point at which their different perspectives unite, despite their apparent opposition. They are capable of achieving cognitive resonance.

Cognitive resonance occurs when two conflicting beliefs are resolved through mutual recognition of the common source underlying cycles of conflict. The desire to love and be loved alongside the fear of being unloved, sit at the foundation of all cognition. We can choose to fight over the superficial disagreements that seem to separate us, or we can consciously resonate with our similarities by recognizing ourselves in the other and forgiving our differences. Because in fact the urge to divide over our differences is what we have in common.

How do you achieve cognitive resonance?

The first step is to become aware Be willing to see your own hostility, envy, competitiveness, etc., without becoming mired in self-hate. Do not blame yourself for carrying these feelings, they are not some unique flaw in you, they are shared by all.

The second step is to stop. Be willing to carefully observe your emotional responses to other people’s words and actions and see that you have the power to choose a different perception of why you feel the way you do. Much of what we react to in other people consists of unacknowledged parts of ourselves. Stopping enables you to perceive the way in which another’s personality mirrors your own. It interrupts the automatic process of judgment.

The third step is to recognize. Recognize that all conflicts originate in unmet needs. The specific needs may differ, but the needing is the same. When two individuals with unmet needs come together without recognizing the mirror image of their needing there is sure to be conflict.

The payoff of being aware, stopping, and recognizing is cognitive resonance. Having recognized the core of similarity at the root conflict, you can gradually allow your guard to drop and your empathy to flow. Allow yourself to resonate with the experience of the other, no matter what that experience is.

Become Aware

If you forget something important and are criticized by others, what do you feel? Automatically you tense up and can’t stop thinking about the ways in which you are flawed. You become flooded with guilt and shame. If someone forgets something important and inconveniences you, how do you react? You’ll automatically tense up and think about the ways in which they are flawed. This locks you into a loop where guilt and shame are followed by the urge to inflict guilt and shame, which creates even more guilt and shame.

Become aware of the pattern. Observe your responses. See if you can prevent them from influencing your actions.  Repressing anger or guilt or shame doesn’t stop the cycle, it only builds up the pressure of pent up emotion that may explode at any time. The insecure ego gains more control over decision making with every turn of the cycle. It drives us into hopeless vortices of despair. The first step - becoming aware - is the hardest because it requires depriving the ego of control. But if you become aware of your ego you will gain an opportunity to take back your free will.


As you become aware of the inner dialogues that exist just below the surface of your thoughts, things start to become frustrating. You realize that you are used to judging, and that it feels uncomfortable when you try to stop. At this point it will help to take a deep breath and close your eyes. Listen to the critical voices speaking incessantly to you and allow them to settle into a state of rest. Just focus on taking deep breaths. It takes time and practice to learn how to observe your thoughts, but you will eventually master the art of stopping in this way.

It is at this point that most people get stuck. Our interpretations of life and people as negative or threatening can prevent us from relaxing our minds even for a second. We feel that if we do we will be harmed or consumed. Feelings of insecurity create doubt and fear, which become our constant companions in a threatening, lonely world.

Remember that fear that prevents you from reaching peace, and that all fear is shared fear. By extending your awareness and stopping the negative responses, you can begin consciously to create new thought patterns that cater to your deeper desire for unity, instead of catering to the guarded and divisive desires of the ego. Over and over, allow your body and mind to relax so that you can gradually learn to shed shame, fear, and judgment.

As stopping becomes more familiar, you will notice previously painful emotions beginning to soften and dissipate. They are slowly being replaced by the freedom of inner spaciousness and peace. Each time you drop your guard, even for a moment, you glimpse and transcend the core of unconscious negativity that keeps you separate from others. As this ability grows you can take the next step, which is to recognize the existence of a common core of hurt and fear beneath the unconscious negativity in human experience. You are now on the path to becoming a healer of pain in the world.


The differences we fight over are small and superficial compared to the experiences we share in common. Underneath every word, poem, symbol, song, and painting there is a feeling. “I will see you tomorrow” is a mundane everyday phrase until you look more closely. “I” a sense of self and individuality, a feeling of presence. “Will” a declaration to take action within the shared conception of a future. “See” to observe and take in awareness of external presences internally. “You” distinguishing the difference between the self and the other. “Tomorrow” a shared mental construct pertaining to the passage of time. Together, these words express a sort of oath, a conveyance that one self is parting from the presence of another for a measured passage of time.

At the core of all communication lies a struggle to harmonize our differences. Allowing the ego and its fearful insecurities to stop opens a space for harmony to exist. This recognition is not easy to maintain, especially if you’ve already become convinced that fearing others is the only safe option. You’ve been taught by experience that fear is a boundary, not a bridge. It takes immense courage to recognize the connective power of fear. It takes even more courage to drop your guard and seize that connection as an opportunity to harmonize. Once you are able to connect to others through the shared experience of fear, and the shared defense of ego, you can learn to create love and acceptance at every turn.


What I mean by love is not the cultural cliché of hearts and flowers, though these are beautiful symbols. I am talking about the core feeling that inspired these symbols: The shared feeling of harmony and oneness between two consciousnesses. Over time the feelings behind our words and symbols become lost beneath layers of culture and habitual repetition. Love is the paradoxical experience of recognizing yourself in another unique being, and of seeing the depth of similarity that underlies all differences.

We are all in love with one another. Our fights and wars but lovers quarrels. We can use those fights as justification for future hostility and resentment, thereby creating a spiral of hate and intolerance towards one another. Or we can use our disagreements to rediscover what we share in common, to grow and see from another perspective, which it turns out, through love, is our own perspective too. This is when the point of resonance between people is reached: When a shared reality comes into awareness precisely because of the deeper understanding of difference.

By allowing cognitive resonance to grow within us, our natural urges for compromise, empathy, understanding, and forgiveness arise, expanding our sense of self. Yet we must not try to force this experience on others. For love through force is impossible. All we need to do is find our own way to the point of resonance – the shared root of conflict - and the rest will take care of itself.

Expect to meet the impatience of ego here, and be willing to trade it for the experience of surrender. Let go of your unconscious impulses and you will open to the ecstasy of surrendering your ego.  Instead of clashing over different interpretations, try to understand that every interpretation is a unique view of the same underlying reality. We hurt one another and try to force each other into submission, but that isn't the way love works. Let the other be and allow them to choose to grow at their own pace, while forgiving their missteps along the way. Do the same for yourself. This can be done by providing kindness and forgiveness through empathy. In this way growth comes naturally.

When you try this approach you realize that it can take a long for love to cross the bridge into another person’s consciousness. There are so many barriers to break down and so many wounds to heal. It can take even longer for love to become their motivation. Patience is important here. Attempting to motivate others through fear or manipulation only leads to growth through disfiguration. Best to lead by being, and to allow others to choose to change within their own time frame. Rest assured, your love for their underlying being and your forgiveness of their mistakes in expressing it will inevitably lead them to realize that they also love you.

We aren't beyond hope, we are just out of balance. A culture pervaded by greed and self-satisfaction has taken hold of the world. Our learned disabilities prevent us from connecting with one another. By converting judgment to nonjudgment through cognitive resonance, we can learn to move beyond these cycles of mutual judgment and fear. We can enter the calmness at the eye of the storm that stands between conflicting opposites. Here compromise and mutual trust can become the norm instead of the exception. Empathy and understanding can replace ego and fear. Everyday brings another opportunity to face down our fear, our shame, and our anger and through awareness, stopping, and recognizing, to learn to resonate with one another.

If we can’t face the dark we can’t aim the light.

Brandon Kim, Penn State Class of 2012
Eric Silver, Doctor of Society

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