Cognitive Dissonance

Posted on January 27, 2012 by

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It was the mid-nineties and I had just finished reading Our Stolen Future and learning about the hormone mimicking chemicals ripping through our entire food chain.  There wasn’t a human left on earth that wasn’t contaminated by these chemicals that should only be found inside transformers, plastics and industrial processes.

The researchers went looking for the uncontaminated people.  The control.  Surely the Eskimo people, who live off the grid, avoid processed food and have managed to avoid many of modern day advances would be unaffected.  They tested higher than your average American.  It turns out that whale blubber, a staple of their diet, is one of the highest sources of these contaminants.

These toxins were wreaking havoc on animals and humans all over the world.  All we can hope to do is limit our exposure.  Limit our exposure by not eating certain foods, like fatty fish.

All these thoughts were racing through my head as I sat down for dinner.  My dad put a filet of Salmon in front of me…

“I was just reading about the health benefits of Omega 3s in fish.”

My dad was always reading and learning.  It wasn’t unusual for him to mention a new study or finding that he had come across.  It wasn’t unusual that it would trigger an emotional response from me.

“Really dad?!  You are telling me that eating fish is healthy now?  That the lack of fish in our diet may explain the proliferation of Western diseases?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Fish are full of all types of hormone mimicking chemicals like PCBs and BPA.  The fish that are rich in Omega 3 are the same fish that carry the highest amounts of these toxins.  Which one is it? Are fish healthy or poisonous?”  I asked angrily.

“Both,”

A smile came across his face as he raised both hands to the side of his face in defense.  “Why are you getting mad at me?  I am just giving you the facts.  I don’t know what you are supposed to do with them.”

He was right.  I shouldn’t have been mad at him.  But I was angry.  I was confused.  I was experiencing cognitive dissonance.

The brain hates holding two pieces of conflicting information.  It needs to sort the information.  One must be true, one must be false.  There must be a rule that can be created to facilitate future decisions.

If fish is healthy then the brain can file it away under “Healthy Protein” and make a resolution to incorporate more fish into its diet.

If fish is dangerous then the brain can file it away under “Dangerous Protein” and make an effort to avoid eating it as much as possible.

What does the brain do when it is confronted with two conflicting ideas?  It gets angry and defensive.  It claims one of the facts is a lie or an exaggeration.  It does whatever it has to do to cancel or diminish one of the facts that it has been presented with.

How did I deal with this particular piece of cognitive dissonance?  I downplayed the efficacy of Omega 3s in my mind and I avoided eating fish on a regular basis.

It wasn’t until 10 years later, when every health blog I read was promoting the health benefits of Omega 3s, that I was forced to revisit this issue.  There was no hiding from the likely health benefits of Omega 3s.  It turned out that the lack of Omega 3s in the American diet may explain the proliferation of Western diseases….  shit.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it.

The PCB situation hadn’t gotten any better.  Fish were still heavily contaminated and more people were becoming aware.  Pregnant women were advised to avoid eating large amounts of certain fish and to completely avoid other types.

Fortunately, Omega 3 supplements are widely available by now.  I tried taking them on a regular basis and noticed immediate benefits.

Now when I hear someone claiming the health benefits of eating fish on a regular basis I just keep my mouth shut.  I don’t want to feel their wrath when I tell them that it is a little more complicated than that.