Cognition reignition

Persisting cognitive dissonance is the mind killer

This post is part 3 of The downbeat technique, a series looking at a physical analogy to exit writer's block, fatalism, and burnout at a core psychic level. In part 1, I discussed the motivation behind it, in part 2 I went through how to use it effectively as a software engineer, and here I review a neat computer science education paper on the cognitive science of avoidance.

Persisting cognitive dissonance + high cognitive load = avoidance failure

I searched a few of the terms I was thinking about (namely "avoidant psychology software engineers") and found what I believe is a paper matching the causal mechanism I intuited from experience. Fascinatingly, it focused on the concept of cognitive dissonance (hereafter CD) rather than what I had been vaguely calling "discomfort", which is more precise and gratifying to stumble upon.

In the paper, Reducing Persisting Cognitive Dissonance and Dropout Rates in Computer Science, the author discusses the traditional learning model of constructivism with an eye fixed on the high cognitive load produced.

It picks out metacognitive skill set as a limiting factor, and unresolved conflicts and persisting cognitive dissonance as the specific causes of failure.

The combination of cognitive dissonance and high cognitive load taxes working memory and prevents conflict resolution

In a computer science context this might mean unresolved bugs in a computer program.

The obvious solution is to reduce CD (e.g. by positive framing) and improving metacognition. The author suggests environmental scaffolds (the technical artifact is a debugging IDE essentially) to support positive outcomes.

The table of contents gives the outline of the thesis:

Some other interesting things to note:

Conclusions on the paper

Previously, I'd been considering the working of my approach as being spelling out the cognitively dissonant aspects of a task, and then conversely focusing on how to 'harmonise' that dissonance.

In this thesis, CD is considered to be initiated by the receipt of new information, rather than being an existing aspect of a task. This means that CD occurs when we create, receive, or think of new information. As a result, our definition of when to "think dissonantly" can be relaxed from an "always on" mode to one that incorporates CD alongside new information.

It likewise lets us relax our definition of when to stop thinking dissonantly (or when to accept CD) by seeing it as something that we reduce when we have the available resources. This suggests CD is harmful when we do not plan to reduce it, and directly connects the "local" (problem level) CD avoidance with the "global" (task level) avoidance failure that comes when unaddressed CD jeapordises success.