Gummy peach rings are almost the exact texture and consistency of someone else’s tongue, and though I am reminded of this every time I bite into one, I cannot imagine getting through a road trip without them. Gas stations all across America sell the orange and yellow rubber loops, and they are satisfyingly flexible, tangy, and sugar-sandpapery. Yet, the sensation loses some of of its pleasure upon mastication. In spite of this, I continue to buy them whenever I drive across the country. They are tongue-like and they are delicious. Both of these things are true.
The human mind’s ability to hold and believe two opposing thoughts at the same time is called cognitive dissonance. It allows us to be hypocritical without being hypocrites. We can believe, for example that:
Now one might guess that the students who received the higher payment would be more enthusiastic about lying to their peers. Strangely, what really happened was that the students who were paid $1 actually convinced themselves that the task had been entertaining. On one hand, their experience proved that the task was boring, but on the other, they were told by experts to say that the experiment was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. The $1 payment wasn’t justification enough to lie, so the students changed their own perceptions and behaviors to accommodate the two truths. Thus the theory of cognitive dissonance was developed.
The reverse can also be true. Competing cognitions can make us feel guilty for taking pleasure in something we have been told we should not. Guilt is painful, so we begin a series of mental acrobatics to justify our behavior. Cognitive dissonance asserts that we are wired to accept contradictions. Yet we are also conditioned to feel guilty.
We worry that we don’t measure up. We worry that we think about sex too much, or that we don’t do enough for others. We worry that we eat too much fat and sugar, when in fact nature, hormones and millennia of evolution have designed us to behave this way. We bully ourselves even though we long to give in to our own internal schematics.
We can stand on the edge of a cliff and have to resist jumping off. We look at the oncoming train and think about stepping in front of it. We see the coals a the base of a bonfire and wonder what it would feel like to fall in.
But the urge to drive off a bridge is not an indicator of suicidal tendencies, but rather a will to survive- an awareness of a threat and an understanding of the risks and consequences that complacency or ambivalence to such a threat can pose. We can think about dying without wanting to die.
Cognitive dissonance allows you to understand that the mouse that nibbles the sweet potato on the counter could make you sick and even kill you-- that you need the poison behind the stove to keep him away and to make it safe for you and your dog to live in your own home. Intellectually, you are aware that finding the dessicated corpse weeks later is no different from finding the live one dying, nestled in your laundry, laboring to breathe. Cognitive dissonance allows you to pick up the green dress that the mouse has chosen as his bier and cradle him as he makes no efforts to flee and just hides his head from the oncoming oblivion. His rubber band tail drapes listlessly over the folds and slips into the pocket of your dress.
Cognitive dissonance allows guilt to overwhelm you and you curse the mouse for ignoring the organic peanut butter you left for him in the live trap that would have deported him from your kitchen, but allowed him to keep his life, a consideration you won’t give to the spider in your shower or the miller moth that beats its body against your laptop screen. You cry warm tears as you notice the green feces clinging to his stomach, the evidence of your cowardice and treachery. You notice his tiny hands with the extra long pinky fingers that clench and unclench as if grasping for an end to the pain in his gut, a magic sunflower seed that could ease the acid hunger that gnaws the walls of his abdomen.
You take him outside and lay him carefully in the garden as if he would prefer death plein air rather than death in a dirty laundry pile. The air is warm and dry, and it signals the start of summer when you yourself will move outside and camp in the mouse’s fields. You weep for him, though you will leave the poison in its place should the next mouse attempt to nibble the sweet potatoes.