Can’t Always Get What You Want: Cognitive Dissonance, Mind Games, and Criticism

Today’s entry is brought to you by eBay, or rather, the never-ending stream of thin justifications that comes out of eBay. You see, I sell on eBay…or rather, I used to before I tired of the games that the company plays with sellers. It’s been a few months since I’ve sold anything on the site, and a year since I was a regular seller. So you can imagine my surprise when I received an email from them informing me that I had been given selling limits; I’ve never had a complaint, no negative feedback, etc. There wasn’t really too much of an emotional reaction beyond a small sense of schadenfreude that the company is really so far down the death spiral that they’re now actively pushing away customers, but that’s neither here nor there.

What I really want to talk about today is the language in the email itself, since this blog is, after all, about the use of language. I’ve been quite amazed at the mental gymnastics that eBay and its evil child, PayPal, follow, but this one might have been the most impressive:

Limits give sellers an opportunity to learn to sell effectively on eBay before ramping up.

But wait, it gets better. Visiting their page on Selling Limits has this even more delicious turn of phrase:

Many members have limits placed on their account or on certain categories and items until they confirm certain information or establish a positive selling history. These limits help you become a successful seller

Now imagine you’ve been selling on eBay for 10 years, have nothing but positive feedback, and have shelled out untold thousands of dollars in eBay fees and receive this email or read that page after having such a limit placed on your account. I’m not one of these sellers, but there are certainly cases of long-successful sellers getting hit with these limits out of the blue, and the broken logic is infuriating, saying, in essence: “we’re taking your successful business away in an attempt to make you a successful business person”.

We’re not here to bury eBay, for they’re doing it themselves. The more important question as a writer is how does this happen? Cognitive dissonance, of course (or just being outright liars, but we’ll pretend it’s the former for the purposes of this entry). I’ll assume most readers are familiar with cognitive dissonance, but if you’re not familiar with it, here’s a quick little definition from Wikipedia and an image.

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions…People are biased to think of their choices as correct, despite any contrary evidence. This bias gives dissonance theory its predictive power, shedding light on otherwise puzzling irrational and destructive behavior.

Okay, so we’re all operating from the same definition, right? In the eBay example, the decision is made to limit smaller sellers and then the rationalization follows. The logic appears broken to those outside of the organization, but I’m sure it makes sense internally. Of course, that makes it no less infuriating.

“But Jonathan, what does this have to do with writing and books?” Good question. It has to do with creativity in general, in the form of criticism. There are probably a hundred different answers to the question of what separates a successful artist from an unsuccessful one, but I am convinced that one of the key components is an ability to handle and internalize criticism without resorting to the mind games of cognitive dissonance.

Good, positive criticism feeds us.  It keeps us aware of the perspective of others and how our works might impact them, as well as the message we’re truly conveying rather than the one we’re attempting to convey. My fiancee helps me in this regard – she is a great sounding board for whether the idea is coming through, and of course beta readers are also essential. Hell, even negative criticism has its place. It reminds us that no matter how big our egos might get, we’re not as good as we might think we are. It helps us to know that sometimes our creative instincts are right. Discourage criticism at your own peril.

For two examples, we need look no further than George Lucas and Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. These two were hugely influential in my early development; I would not be the writer that I am today without their presence in my life – Lucas for helping me dream big and embrace my imagination and Corgan for helping me to transform inner experiences into something larger, as well as my use of symbolism. I still respect the men, despite their artistic missteps. But let’s not bat around the bush, they have certainly experienced missteps. I’m sure you’re familiar with Lucas’s issues, and Corgan…well, his most recent “video” is an insipid song interspersed with…oh, just look, it speaks for itself:–221565301

What went wrong? Ignoring valid criticism (with a possible lack of creative impetus). Lucas has notoriously surrounded himself with Yes Men – just watch some of the making-of videos on the prequels and cringe at the sycophants that don’t dare question his decisions. Corgan has openly rebelled against critics and even engaged in some particularly childish name-calling with those critics on Twitter without even considering the words that they say, dismissing them as simply negative.

Like I said, discourage criticism at your own peril.

So we have to keep ourselves open to the process. Be aware of what your critics might be saying – good or bad. Decide if it fits in with your vision, and what you might be doing wrong. I believe that once an artist decides that they have to step out from behind the work to defend it, they have clearly blown something in the execution. That’s fine, it happens, but perhaps the most important thing is to take a step back and question exactly why the criticism exists, and what could be done differently next time. It makes us better all around, and as I’ve said, really separates the wanna-bes from those who are dedicated to their craft.

Today’s featured blog is Wind Whisperer, a creative writing blog by self-described pity party queen (in recovery) J. Lee McKenzie. She writes about her own struggles and glories on the always-interesting writing path. Check it out.

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  1. Funny and informative! Thanks for featuring me!

  2. And if 3 people call you a horse, it’s time to buy a saddle! 🙂

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