Cognitive Dissonance versus Cognitive Flexibility

As someone with Asperger’s syndrome, I am frequently baffled when facts are contested by denial ( “I don’t believe that” instead of “I want to see if the methodology is flawed”) rather than potentially countering facts and even more confused when facts are greeted with an angry response. Why do facts, things that are theoretically neutral, invoke emotional responses?  I’m sure that I fall prey to this as well, but one of the biggest social obstacles I face is that people can perceive me as “aggressive” or “rude” when I introduce facts into a discussion even when I am VERY careful not to couch them in implicative terminology. For example, pointing out the Jesus said nothing whatsoever about homosexuality in the Bible has gotten me yelled at by a religiously-justified homophobe for “attacking” his views.

Hypothetically, the negative reaction to facts all boils down to cognitive dissonance, the “feeling of psychological discomfort produced by the combined presence of two thoughts that do not follow from one another … the greater the discomfort, the greater the desire to reduce the dissonance of the two cognitive elements”.  The brain comes up with a lot of ways to protect it’s beliefs and deal with cognitive dissonance, and a common reaction to it is anger at the person who “caused” the dissonance. The greater the dissonance, the greater the anger. Sometimes what I say or point out is the equivalent of giving a white supremist a DNA test proving his father was a light-complexioned Jewish black man. It is easier to yell at me and/or deny the evidence (or come up with wild theories about how it was ‘faked’) than to deal with the truth because the truth contradicts that person’s deeply held belief system.

Apparently many people with Asperger’s have what is known as the “paradox of cognitive flexibility”.  Cognitive flexibility “refers to the mental ability to adjust thinking or attention in response to changing goals and/or environmental stimuli … a switch in thinking, whether that is specifically based on a switch in rules or broadly based on a need to switch one’s previous beliefs or thoughts to new situations. Moreover, it refers to simultaneously considering multiple aspects of thought at once, whether they be two aspects of a specific object, or many aspects of a complex situation … the ability to adjust one’s thinking from old situations to new situations as well as the ability to overcome responses or thinking that have become habitual and adapt to new situations.”  Aspy’s can be extremely ridged in our habits or preferences (which in normal people indicates a cognitive inflexibility) but we remain cognitively flexible. Cognitive flexibility means we are more apt to change our opinions in response to new facts, rather than have denial/anger from cognitive dissonance.

Obviously cognitive flexibility is a good thing, but that coupled with the Aspy lack of emotional intelligence does render us more likely to blunder in social situations wherein normal people would “know” that the topic of discussion was a sensitive subject and contradictory facts would not be welcome.

The truth may set you free, but it plays havoc with your social life.

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