Cognitive Dissonance and The Psychology of Teacher Worship

"Enslavement by illusion is comfortable.  It is the liberation by truth that people fear."
-David R. Hawkins

As years went by in the journey of my experience as a singer and voice teacher, the single most enlightening realization I had regarding the process of teaching was the importance of the psychological aspects of a student’s development.  More and more I developed methods to help students progress as much from a psychological as a physiological standpoint.  Through necessity I created numerous exercises to ‘trick’ the mind of a student into allowing them to reach their fullest vocal potential while bypassing all the mental interference so common in the mastery of any form.  

But I began to notice a very prevalent psychological phenomenon mostly encountered in singers who were studying with other teachers.  Time and again, I heard a singer who had fundamental vocal flaws which indicated they had not even been taught the basics of vocal technique, I asked them who they studied with and much to my shock, they informed me they had been with the same teacher for many years, whom they still worshipped!  Even the slightest hint of a suggestion that perhaps they should study with someone else would throw them into a resentful state and they would start showering their teacher with praise.  No amount of specific explanation on my part as to how I could fix those flaws rather easily in a short period of time would get them to change their minds.  I finally asked a student of mine who was a psychiatrist about this and he explained that this phenomenon is called ‘cognitive dissonance’ and was quite prevalent in most situations involving human belief systems.  I have here adapted an explanation of it as it relates to students of singing:

There are essentially two modes of thinking with regard to the psychology of taking singing lessons and vocal progress:

Mode 1 (the common mode):  Belief and sentiment precede reason and logic.

This is by far the most common form of thinking among students of voice. In this mode of thinking, a pre-conceived belief is chosen first from competing sentiments, then hypotheses are formed to "rationalize" the belief.  The student seeks facts and ideas which justify the belief and belief then justifies reason.  This is an inferior and primitive form of thinking.  The student ‘rationalizes’ emotions.  Why does the student choose one belief over another?  What is the justification for choosing one belief over another at first?  That’s just it, there is no justification.  It is irrational.  To a large extent it depends on the imagery of childhood experience; an imagery which can be influenced by early trauma and controlled by exposure to propaganda and indoctrination.  Students who use mode 1 thinking are easily susceptible to imagery and pandering.  The efficacy of a teacher's propaganda is directly proportional to the percentage of their students that use mode 1 thinking.

Mode 2:  Reason precedes belief (the rare mode).

This is the rarest mode of thinking.  In this mode, the student, in the process of forming a new opinion or being presented with an idea or fact that contradicts their preconceived beliefs, carefully examines all of the facts of the matter, forms a hypothesis, and then attempts to disprove their own previously held beliefs.  After a certain amount of rigorous examination and refutation of their own beliefs, he/she may or may not conclude they are sound.  If they do not survive close examination and refutation, the student reaches a ‘Bifurcation Point‘:  The old beliefs are discarded and a new hypothesis is formed which functions at a higher level than the previous one.  The new hypothesis is then incorporated into the student's map of reality (the ego).  In the process of incorporating the new hypothesis into their map of reality, certain sentiments are attached to it and the hypothesis becomes a 'belief'.  Sentiment is the foundation of all thought, it is the motive force behind thought.  So, even before the hypothesis is formed, there is sentiment, but there are competing sentiments.  It is the hallmark of the rational mind to allow reason to be the justification for sentiment.  Once a rational/reasoned hypothesis is decided upon among competing hypotheses, a sentiment is chosen from competing sentiments.  Reason precedes sentiment, reason justifies sentiment.

The 'Teacher's Cult'

Mode 1 thinking facilitates the formation of the cult mentality.  The cult mentality is totally impervious to any form of rational persuasion.  It is the extreme of Mode 1 thinking.  It is a mentality dominated by emotion and sentiment.  Thus, one sees 'cult members' worshiping their voice teachers and often believing they are great teachers in spite of the fact that they are not progressing vocally, the only reason being that their identity is dominated by one or two sentiments which can only be justified by such ideas. The teacher, as 'cult leader' takes full advantage of the susceptibility of the cult mentality (often unconsciously) by using ideas that pander to the sentiments underlying the identity of the cult mentality. The details of cult psychology are beyond the scope here.  Suffice it to say that there is a great deal of literature on cult psychology, but that the basic underlying mechanism is Mode 1 thinking.

So what happens when Mode 1 thinking is confronted with unassailable facts and logic?  What
happens when the flimsy logic rationalizing and justifying the pre-existing sentiment is challenged by incontrovertible evidence?  Cognitive Dissonance:  i.e. any new hypotheses the student is presented with are automatically rejected with prejudice because they contradict preconceived notions dominated by sentiment, in spite of the fact that these new hypotheses may help the student break out of a vocal 'rut'. Thus, growth and vocal progress are ceased and the student tries to rationalize this by thinking it is simply because they are 'not good enough'.  The teacher encourages this belief to hide the fact that the real reason the student is not progressing is because of inadequacies in the teacher.  Human capacity for self-deception is almost boundless and even intelligent students will go to almost any lengths to avoid the trauma (bifurcation point) of discovering that they have been deceiving themselves, perhaps for years.