I have been feeling off colour of late and now I know why. It’s cognitive dissonance. This is the most influential theory in social psychology by all accounts. It describes the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding on to two contradictory ideas simultaneously. Apparently the term ‘sour grapes’ comes from Aesop’s fable about the fox who failing to reach the grapes, decided he didn’t want them anyway as they were flawed. This is an example of dissonance or discomfort being reduced by the fox changing his belief.
The term is often used when people are talking about crop circles, the world of which seems to me about as dissonant as one can get. First of all the circles themselves challenge our basic assumptions about reality on multiple levels. When this hits the brain it creates a most unpleasant feeling and people find ways of dealing with it. They say it’s boring or they say that everyone knows that people are making them or they ignore them completely, like the islanders, who ignored the arrival of Captain Cooke’s ship because they had never seen a ship before.
The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance was developed in the mid ’50s by Leon Festinger in his book of that name. He showed how we strive to preserve our beliefs by adapting the threatening in any way possible and will opt for familiarity rather than confront the new. When Festinger infiltrated a group with specific beliefs, he found that when time proved them wrong, they actually became more convinced, not less, creating a counter-intuitive level in their persistence of belief. The trouble with investigating the subject of crop circles, is that one quickly finds that both sides, believers and skeptics, accuse each other of being victims of cognitive dissonance. It’s enough to do one’s head in.
Festinger suggested that groups often have an intolerance to ambiguity. I think I do as well but I am pushing through the discomfort in an honest effort to stay openminded on the subject, poised as we are on the cusp of a step change in the evolution of knowledge. After all, if we are to make the leap, we must recognise that there has to be a tension between observation and experience. Crazy ideas compete with consensual knowledge in the amphitheatre of change, whether we like it or not. In the world of crop circles we have a mixof people; some who say they make the circles, some who suggest they might have made circles but wont tell you which,some who believe they represent mystery to be adored. Then there are all the people involved in the £6000000 tourist industry, together with a smattering of self styled gurus, artists, scientists and code breakers.
What’s actually happening is the result of an an interaction of relationships formed over time that actually is powerful enough in itself to create something phenomenal, over and above the individuals involved. In the midst of the confusion over what is true and what is false, lies the land of myth, creativity and expanded experience. Out of the disconnected comes a new way of seeing. This the crop circles are teaching us, for in themselves they exist in an atmosphere of rites and ritual, faith and belief. A part of the magic is the tradition of covertness and anonymity that surrounds their creation, whether in this world or in another. To be effective the circles have to be more than art-and they are.