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Cognitive Dissonance (or how Ben Franklin can help settle your divorce).


Have you heard of the Ben Franklin effect?

Benjamin Franklin, the scientist and politician, had a bitter rival. But when he discovered that his rival owned a rare book that Franklin needed, he swallowed his pride and asked to borrow the book. The rival obliged and Franklin returned the book the following week, along with a thank you note.

To Franklin's surprise (I assume!), the next time they met his rival was far more civil towards him, and more inclined to offer further assistance. In time they actually became friends.

So why the change in behavior? And what on earth does it have to do with your divorce?

In a recent post I talked about confirmation bias, one of the psychological principles that mediators can tap into to help you solve conflict — and another one of these psychological rules lies behind the Benjamin Franklin effect too: cognitive dissonance.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Your brain absolutely hates it when you hold two beliefs that contradict each other; it causes mental discomfort, and even psychological distress. To avoid this mental distress, your brain will automatically find a way to reconcile the conflicting views.

For example, you like to care for your health but you feel guilty after having a few too many glasses of Merlot over the weekend. To clear the conflict, your brain will likely remind you of that study you read that suggests red wine is beneficial for heart health. Or if you succumb to the pastries offered up in your morning meeting even though you're supposed to be cutting back on junk, you might soothe your discomfort by telling yourself that you'll have a small salad for lunch.

In the case of Ben Franklin, his rival lent him the book, presumably out of a sense of obligation or politeness. But because they didn't have a positive relationship, doing Franklin a favor caused mental discomfort. To ease the discomfort, his brain justified the behavior by making him revise his opinion of Franklin to look at him more favorably.

It's a phenomenon that scientists have studied since and they have found that being kind to someone does lead to an increase in how much you like that person.

Cognitive dissonance and divorce.

Much of the time, your brain steps in automatically to solve your cognitive dissonance for you — as in the case of the wine and pastries when you quickly remember the study that told you wine was good for you, or you did a quick calorie calculation and realized that a lighter lunch would make up for the delicious Danish.

But when it comes to deeper conflicts, like the conflicting emotions that come with divorce territory, your mind needs a helping hand to overcome the cognitive dissonance. Helping you do so is all part of a mediator's training; there are several useful strategies we can use to start reconciling those conflicts.

Avoiding the negative Ben Franklin effect.

Just as treating someone with kindness can cause us to like them more, the converse is true. If you treat someone badly, whether through your behavior or your words, your brain vilifies the other person to help justify your actions. If anger starts to bubble up during mediation and either party is threatening to lash out, your mediator will help diffuse tensions or encourage you to take a break before the negative Ben Franklin effect can kick in.

Encouraging empathy.

The beliefs you hold about your spouse can cause an incredible amount of pain — particularly if they've acted in a way that completely contradicts the way you've always thought of them. This type of cognitive dissonance is hard to work through but it starts with empathy.

Instead of making assumptions about the root cause of their actions, your mediator can help you dig a bit deeper and help you understand your spouse's perspective, uncover their beliefs, and discover why they've acted in the way they have.

Cognitive dissonance and compromise.

On the flip side, getting someone to act in a way that challenges our beliefs about them can actually help us leverage the positive power of cognitive dissonance.

When, for example, a mediator can encourage the "stubborn, unreasonable, obstinate" spouse to make a compromise, to act more fairly in some way, cognitive dissonance will force the other spouse (in a good way!) to reassess their opinion of their partner.

As per the Ben Franklin effect, once you begin to look at someone more favorably, it becomes easier to act with kindness, tolerance, and patience — the very qualities that underpin a peaceful and productive divorce process.

If you'd like to explore how a mediator can help you find a way to a more peaceful divorce, get in touch — I'd love to help.

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Comments 1

Mikalea Bolds on Monday, 07 October 2019 14:33

Love this - really has me thinking...

Love this - really has me thinking...
Tuesday, 20 April 2021

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