Blog Article: Cognitive Dissonance in Martial Arts

Cognitive Dissonance in Martial Arts - 10/03/2013



“Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.”



Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort that occurs with the presence of two or more thoughts, beliefs or values that are in conflict with each other. Put simply, your belief or assumption is contradicted by new information so a feeling of unease occurs. The psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term in 1957 where he showed that people tend to preserve their current understanding of the world by rejecting, explaining away or completely ignoring new conflicting information to avoid this uneasy feeling. People often get upset when their beliefs are challenged and can react quite aggressively when confronted with new information.



Through my martial arts journey of the last 30 years, I have had to face my own cognitive dissonance many times. I distinctly remember my first training session with Bob Breen. I had been training martial arts for 5 years though I left feeling like a beginner. In terms of functional martial arts I was!  Much of my previous training left me ill-prepared for combat, which Bob Breen and his academy was well known for. Throwing away old training methods, techniques and ideas with which I had become attached to was very uncomfortable and still is, as this is a continuing process of personal evolution. This has occured in many aspects of my life from religious belief to political opinion. Many frown upon those who change their view, especially if it is frequent, though I believe it to be very honourable to admit to yourself and others that you now believe you were wrong.



I believe that to be true to myself I must have a flexible mind that will follow the evidence no matter where it leads. If it is opposite to what I believe and has enough supporting evidence, I must take it on board and follow my "truth". Being a student and instructor in Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do (JKD) and having been exposed to his writings from an early age, I have always followed his philosophy of ' Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless.' Bruce Lee was condemned by many for his outspoken beliefs on martial arts especially his famous “99% of oriental martial arts are baloney” quote. It was Bruce Lee in the 1960's who, in his quest to find the most functional way to fight, advocated cross training in various martial arts and that in order to fight, you need to be able to strike and grapple. Watch the first scene in the film Enter the Dragon (1973) where Bruce and his opponent are wearing tight shorts, fingerless gloves and the fight is finished with a tap out from a submission hold. That was 20 years before the first UFC.



“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
Arthur Schopenhauer
German Philosopher
(1788 - 1860) 



Jump forward to 1993 and the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is held with Royce Gracie, an expert in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), submitting all his opponents on the ground with arm locks and chokes. The martial arts world would slowly realise that learning to grapple was essential in combat. In JKD circles this was already known with English Catch Wrestling and Japanese Judo already part of the curriculum since the 1960’s. It was a great time to be involved and see this ‘martial arts awakening’.



Along with those who could see this obvious evolution were those who stood firm and would not budge. Excuses as to why certain styles and individuals did not perform well were echoed worldwide. Now in 2013, the UFC and the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) have evolved incredibly with the athletes all having striking skills as well as wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu. Those ignorant echoes are heard less and less. Through these competitions we have identified what works in a one on one fight with limited rules. The arts that seem to perform well are all sports; boxing, Muay Thai, Judo, wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu etc. The reason these arts do so well is the emphasis on fundamentals and the way these fundamentals are trained. All of them have live sparring where the skills are practiced with live partners offering various levels of resistance.



Every country has a history of some sort of boxing and wrestling styles (and weaponry). When you compare these styles you find common themes. For instance a jab in western boxing, Muay Thai, Burmese boxing etc is the same; it has to be. Truth is universal. Similarly, a hip toss in wrestling is the same as a hip throw in Judo or Russian Sambo. There is a proper way to perform certain fundamentals and this transcends different styles. The name of the style or technique is irrelevant in terms of performance. Whether you call a bent arm lock Ude-garame, Kimura, Chicken wing or double wristlock, essentially it is the same technique while coming from styles that span the globe.



So we now know through observation and live experimentation which arts and styles fit best in a one on one environment. Does this mean that one should not train or study arts that do not fit in to this structure? Not necessarily. Studying a martial art to preserve it in the name of culture is fine, as is studying it simply for fun or relaxation. The problem arises when a student is studying a “fantasy art” with the untested belief it will work in sport or self defence. The Kung Fu movies with the wild, flamboyant and often nonsensical moves are still believed by many to be functional techniques and superior to, lets say an amateur boxer. That is until it is tested in competition or a self defence situation and it soon becomes evident which techniques are functional and which are fantasy. A film maker described his experience visiting the Shaolin temple in China. One of the monks was spotted shadow boxing in the temple courtyard and asked what he was doing by the film maker observing. The monk replied, “Although Chinese Kung Fu is superior to western boxing, western boxing makes you learn to fight quicker.”  Can anyone else spot the backward thinking? What is meant here by superior? Obviously not the ability to fight.



Remember in objective reality we can test any art to a certain degree in the gym (laboratory). The argument against this is you cannot practice dangerous techniques like eye pokes or groin strikes. Understood. Though who has the better credentials to score a finger jab to the eyes, the boxer who is constantly landing jabs on the chin or the ‘self defence guy’ who does not spar? Who is more likely to score the groin kick, the kick boxer who spars regularly or the guy doing groin kicks in the air? I know who I would put my money on.



When a student who is training for function in an art that is fiction (in terms of fighting) is exposed to these truths, cognitive dissonance sets in. The student knows the truth deep down but struggles to accept it. An open mind would go where the evidence is and adapt accordingly but for many that is hard to accept, especially if they have invested many years into their chosen discipline. Often they rigidly defend their dogma at all costs even in the face of obvious truths.



“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off!”
Gloria Steinem
American Author and Activist



Thankfully MMA has opened many an eye around the world to what functional technique is and with the proper coaching, how to train these techniques. I believe there is still a place for the non-combative arts to exist as diversity is a beautiful thing. Also as the combat athletes continue to grow and evolve, I am confidant some of the more fantasy techniques will make a come back. If you do not believe me, take a look at Anthony Pettis’ Matrix style kick in the WEC. This evolution will happen and is happening because these athletes already have their foundations in functional striking and grappling arts. An athlete who is comfortable fighting at any range tends to have more freedom in what techniques they throw, no matter how flamboyant, as they fear not what position or range they end up in.



Remember when you learn something new that contradicts your current understanding and you get the uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance, look at the facts, measure up the evidence and follow the “truth”. Following truth and honesty promotes a positive attitude change and personal evolution which applies to all areas of life.



All the best, Neil.