Issue 5, Spring 2010
It's All in Your Head: Conquering Cognitive Dissonance During the Writing Process
Back in 2007, during my inaugural year as a Writing Consultant, I thought myself pretty much invincible. Sociology papers? A walk in the park! English papers? Bring on the Bard! It wasn’t too soon into my tenure at the Writing Studio, however, that I encountered my first philosophy paper and the sudden decimation of my confidence as a writing consultant.
I remember the initial tension that swelled inside of me as the student began reading his “Introduction to Ethics” paper. The topic was one that I had not previously crossed and the form of the paper threw me for a loop – making me question whether I really was a good writing consultant.
These symptoms are classic signs of cognitive dissonance. In its most simple form, cognitive dissonance is the tension or even panic that one experiences upon receiving information that is counter to personally held thoughts, beliefs, or schemas. Until that point in my collegiate education, I had only written English or sociology papers, and my knowledge of writing formats and subject matter was primarily pulled from those two disciplines. Understandably, being expected to consult a student with a paper that confounded me definitely made me panic. I found myself blindly asking questions simply to gain an elementary grasp of the topic, and eventually left the 50-minute session defeated, feeling as if I had not been helpful to the student.
Today, as a student of human development, I look back on the experience and offer the following strategies adapted from Leon Festinger, creator of cognitive dissonance theory, for both writers and consultants who experience discomfort upon encountering writing in an unfamiliar cannon:
This strategy implores disgruntled writers to alter either the new belief or the currently held belief in order to make the two discrepant pieces of information congruous. While this strategy might initially alleviate some of the tension associated with writing or consulting in a different discipline, I would advise that one proceed with caution. Though each discipline maintains its own unique principles, the foundations of good writing remain the same regardless of the type of paper. So, as writers and consultants, it may prove more pragmatic to expand our ideas regarding writing format to accommodate the new information we encounter while applying conventional knowledge of writing to papers outside of our own disciplines. Instead of attempting to alter one discipline to fit in the “box” of the other, incorporate ideas from general writing practices with the individual conventions of each discipline to enhance both general writing skills and subject-specific skills.
Similarly to “changing attitudes,” adding information suggests that writers and consultants actively incorporate ideas from the new writing discipline into their writing “tool box.” In this case, the cognitive dissonance that one may experience results from not having a holistic picture of the situation, and thus, incorporating new information can tame the writer’s or writing consultant’s tension through education. Researching the conventions associated with writing in various disciplines will allow for not only a nuanced understanding of what is required for different types of papers, but it will alleviate the initial distress associated with writing such pieces, since writers will at least possess a conceptual framework to apply to their writing. “Adding information” also challenges writers to become more familiar with unfamiliar types of writing and may even improve their general writing skills, since they will acquire a new way of approaching writing. Consultants can particularly benefit from this exercise, since they will be better equipped to approach papers from outside of their own disciplines.
Both of these techniques offer guidance for reducing the anxiety that one might experience upon writing a paper or consulting a writer who is writing a paper that resides outside of one’s expertise. However, for these techniques to be successful, writers and consultants both must remain open to new ideas and realize that writing outside of one’s discipline is a learning process. Writers and consultants should readily explore novel ideas and ask questions abundantly in order to become accustomed to foreign forms of writing. Finally, writers and consultants alike should remain confident in their abilities and embrace the challenge of writing in a different discipline rather than succumbing to the anxiety of the unfamiliar.
Now, as a writing consultant with three years of experience, I no longer evade the opportunity to assist students in disciplines other than my own due, in part, to my application of the above-mentioned strategies. Instead, I welcome the challenge of consulting students in any discipline – or at least we’ll see how that goes with the biological sciences student that I’m preparing to consult next hour.