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Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance is a term in psychology that describes the feeling of conflicting tension experienced by a person when they hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time. Since both beliefs or ideas cannot at the same time be true, a person will feel uncomfortable and start trying to figure out a way to reconcile the beliefs so they don't seem to be in conflict anymore or until the discomfort seems to be relieved. Dissonance is more likely to happen if the major idea is about who we are or concerns a belief system or worldview that we embrace. Dissonance increases with the importance of the subject to us, how strongly the dissonant thoughts are in conflict, and our inability to rationalize and explain away the conflict given how we know the real world works. The "ideas" or "cognitions" in question may include attitudes and beliefs, and also the awareness of one's behavior. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors even if this justification is itself irrational, illogical, or embraces superstitious and/or 'magical thinking'. Noticing the contradiction would lead to dissonance, which could be experienced as anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, embarrassment, stress, and other negative emotional states. When people's ideas are consistent with each other, they are in a state of harmony, or consonance. A powerful cause of dissonance is when an idea conflicts with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as "I am a good person" or "I made the right choice." The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization, the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one's choices. Dissonance can also lead to confirmation bias, the rejection of disconfirming evidence, and other ego defense mechanisms like denial, intellectualization, altruism, introjection, and suppression.

Cognitive Dissoance and Doubt
Cognitive DissonanceFor a long time as someone who believed in the supernatural (i.e., God, miracles, the soul, life-after-death, Heaven, angels, etc), I experienced cognitive dissonance. Whenever I realized that my religious beliefs might not be in touch with reason or reality, I had a dilemma. To relieve that dissonance, I had a few options. I could choose to abandon religious belief, or I could find some way to explain why the religious belief was totally rational. My usual way of dealing with this was to turn to Christian apologetics reading or to put my questions to older and hopefully wiser men. I think it seems reasonable enough that my first instinct was to try to reconcile to myself that my religious beliefs were true, safe and secure. I 'd been taught those beliefs since infancy, and they had become a big part of my life and my view of reality. I remember as my doubts grew, I still had a growing desire to have a more firm faith in God and Jesus Christ. I thought that I should keep away from things that caused me to doubt, and instead fill my mind with the best that Christian apologetics had to offer (I wanted to stack the deck in favor of my religion). I did this for many years, as it was more comfortable and safer, in the short term. Eventually I could no longer deal with this cognitive dissonance by clinging to my supernatural beliefs, and for the sake of acknowledging truth and reality I had to let them go.

Cognitive DissoanceTo better understand the notion of cognitive dissoance, a few examples might be in order:

  • People who think they are smart, moral or competent and they make a mistake that would indicate otherwise.
  • People with addictions that know the behavior is harmful but want to continue to do it anyway, such as smokers, overeaters, compulsive gamblers, alcoholics
  • People that are genetically disposed to Mental Illness have difficulty in reconciling their actions with their conscience
  • People that make excuses for the 'embarrassing' member of the family.
  • People that automatically start 'playing the blame game' and pointing fingers.
  • Professional people that have made a mistake that impacts their self image, such as a prosecuting attorney that wrongly convicts someone who is subsequently shown through something such as DNA evidence to be innocent. The attorney doesn't want to believe they have made this kind of mistake.
  • People that want to believe in things that are not supported by strong evidence such as Superstitions, UFOs, Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster, Ghosts, Psychic phenomena, faith healing, miracles, angels, Six-Day Creationism, the Inerrancy of the Bible, life-after-death, etc
  • People that have to reconcile why they adhere to one religious belief rather than another
  • People who deny the phyics of the real world in order to believe in the supernatural when in fact they will never experience anything remotely supernatural their entire lives.
  • People that have to reconcile events in their religion that they do not like, such as the many fantastic anecdotes in the Old Testament.
  • People that have to reconcile why an all powerful and loving god would create the need to permit so much suffering in the world, or have to reconcile why an all powerful loving God uses principles that are shown in day to day life to be seriously flawed or outright immoral.

The FoolOnce you understand the concept of Cognitive Dissonance and Self-Justification, you can see examples of it literally hour to hour, and especially in Movies and in TV where writers have to introduce conflict as quickly as possible to set the premise and give the characters something to do. It seems to be a mechanism, or drive related to self-preservation. The brain is wired for self-justification. It has been identified in every major culture. It shows up in fmri brain scans. Drew Weston showed that when a person is experiencing dissonance, the thought processes shut down and when the subject starts reducing dissonance the brain centers that show pleasure become activated. The problem is that it is a means of utilizing bias and ignoring evidence that prevents finding the truth or resolution of a problem. Once a person is experiencing Cognitive Dissonance it is very difficult for another person to interrupt the process. Attempts by another person to interrupt the process will result in the intensifying of the process and the resolve of the person experiencing dissonance to continue attempting to reconcile it.

An episode in a series of Psychology videos explains bias and cognitive dissonance very well. Follow this link Learner.org Part 11: Judgement and Decision Making. Registration is free to watch but you will have to create an account to watch.

Of the many things the video talks about is a seminal experiment by Leon Festinger and Carl Smith. Leon Festinger conducted one of the first experiments to introduce conditions that reliably induce dissonance. In the experiment the subjects were told to perform boring tasks. Afterwards they were given the opportunity to receive payment if they could influence others to participate in the experiment. Some subjects were given a twenty dollar payment, others only a one dollar payment and some were not given the offer. When asked to rate the tasks, the group that was paid one dollar rated them more highly than the group that was paid twenty. The group that was paid twenty dollars had an obvious external justification fortheir behavior, but those that were paid less had to internalize it. The researches theorized that the one dollar group did not believe they had sufficient justification to lie about the tasks so they were forced to changetheir attitude to relieve the stress. The process allowed the subjects to genuinely believe the tasks were enjoyable. Here is a link to the original paper.

Another similar experiment was done by Elliot Aronson where two groups were picked to join an organization with a initiation tasks. The organization turned out to be boring and uninteresting, but those that had the harder initiation felt more loyalty to it than those that had the easy initiation. Leon Festinger summed it up in the video as "we come to love what we suffer for".

Carol Tarvis and Elliot Arronson (the researcher noted above) wrote a book on this subject called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs. When asked if Cognitive Dissonance is manifested in religious belief, Carol Travis responded:

Q: There are religious people that don't demand proof for their beliefs, is this a way of relieving their cognitive dissonance?

A: The more important a particular belief is to us the more strongly we will ignore or reject evidence suggesting we are wrong. Religion is central to what gives many people meaning and purpose in life. This type of belief will be defended at all costs. Examples of dis-confirming evidence creating Cognitive Dissonance are Evolution, the Holocaust and disasters. Most religious people are not threatened by evolution. They find a way to fit it into their beliefs, but some cannot fit it into their beliefs and they will go to great lengths to try to refute the dis-confirming evidence. How do Jews deal with the Holocaust? The Jews believe they are the chosen people, and god is looking after them. How could a good loving god have permitted genocide? Students of Cognitive Dissonance Theory would predict that people would become more religious and their faith would be strengthened. What most people do is not lose their faith in God but reduce the dissonance by saying God is responsible for the Good in the world, human beings are responsible for the Evil or God is testing faith. The Christian response to the question of how Jesus could permit enormous suffering to happen is to believe that it is to test faith. Anything that is not consonant with a belief in God is reinterpreted to make it consonant. For example after a terrible disaster the survivors will say something like "god was looking after me" but discounting the fact that God was not looking out for other people that died.

Another interesting interview related to cognitive dissonance is from the radio show "All in the Mind". They interviewed Phillip Zambardo, the lead researcher involved with the Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiment had to be cancelled because it got out of control. The participants started self-justifying doing terrible things to each other and it had to be stopped. He was the expert witness for the defendants in the Abu Ghraib trial, explaining how situational factors can make good people do bad things using cognitive dissonance to self-justify their actions. It is described in his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. It made me think about slavery, the crusades, Old Testament atrocities and William Lane Craig's jaw-dropping defense of killing pregnant mothers with a sword.

I suffered severely from dissonance and when I decided to subject my religious beliefs to the same type of criteria and scrutiny that I used for my day to day life, I discovered that I could no longer hold a belief in the Judeo-Christian God or the inerrancy or veracity of the Bible. I Know that it is likely that I am not going to convince any Christian that biblical language itself does not warrant a belief in the supernatural, but what I can do is—through the use of rational discussion—point out the weakness in their arguments and principles that their arguments depend on in order to introduce cognitive dissonance in their mind. On numerous occasions I have witnessed this cognitive dissonance reveal itself in the way of panic, anger, anxiety, tears, even a physical reaction like nausea, stuttering, or bodily shaking.

People use different criteria for reasoning based on the context of the situation. They are called "spheres' when the the concept is applied to a group and "compartmentalizing" when applied to an individual. This concept is discussed in Stephen Toulmin's Introduction to Reasoning and Richard D. Reinke and Malcom O. Sillar's Argumentation and Critical Decision Making. The difference in the spheres and compartments can be seen very well when comparing Scientific Reasoning, Legal Reasoning, Religious Reasoning, Artistic Reasoning, and Business Reasoning. I am sure these are not all the spheres that can be identified but they are useful for this discussion. The difference between them is the weight that each places on types of evidence and principle. And often one type of reasoning taken out of context and applied in another sphere or compartment breaks down. For example, the type of anecdotal evidence used in Legal reasoning would break down when applied to science, just as Religious witness testimony breaks down when applied to Legal Reasoning. These facts insulate poor reasoning and can be used to justify poor conclusions. However, when comparing the principles that conclusions depend on, it is not so easy to justify poor conclusions. For example, the concept of evidence is fundamental to all the types of reasoning but the type of evidence is not. However, if we say the type of evidence needed to justify Christian beliefs is not sufficient to justify a Muslim, Hindu, Jewish beliefs then the principle breaks down and we can say the conclusion is flawed.

Shamelessly Cribbed from Lee Randolph

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Copyright © 2009 by Craig Lee Duckett. All rights reserved
LAST UPDATED: March 30, 2009
March 30, 2009