The unreachable fruit (on cognitive dissonance)


As we grow to be equipped with a set of values, with a certain more or less hierarchical vision of the world, we notice that other talking creatures do not share our perceptions and judgments. Tastes and opinions differ, and behind aesthetic, practical or political statements, we can decipher diverse quality scales. The incapacity for the others to agree with your statements can be a source of irritation. For some, it is a way of expanding their own vision, of enriching the kaleidoscope of their experiences through constructive contradiction.

It is intellectually challenging when our interlocutor does not share part of our opinions, but when we can still communicate on the basis of mutual conventions and agreements. Yet, when there seems to be no common point at all or very few similarities, when the other just seems to have no interest for any of our objects of interest, and on the contrary is cheered up by elements that annoy us or leave us uninterested, then we can experience a form of aesthetical disgust, a form of cognitive dissonance (a concept proposed by Jon Elster).

Let us reread Aesop’s fable, The Fox and the Grapes. The animal sees some high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them, because they are desirable. Yet, incapable of reaching for them, he changes his mind and decides that the grapes are not worth eating, that they are bad. Jon Elster calls this behavior “adaptive preference formation”. How many times do we follow this pattern in the course of our life? How many times do we betray our first impression, our first desire, just because we do not try to reach for the grapes? “Change my desires rather than the order of the world” is a Cartesian maxim that a crealist will have difficulties applying. It seems better to invent a way to reach for the grapes, even if it seems impossible at first glance. And if the grapes remain unreachable, let us not insult our soul, our ideals, by declaring the fruits improper. Or if we persist with a foxy bad faith, the tree might end up giving no fruit at all, like in an eternal winter.