Originally published August 16, 2005
Cognitive dissonance is defined as “the discomfort felt at a discrepancy between what you already believe and new information.” – source: Joe Conason, columnist, salon.com/New York Observer on ‘The Al Franken Show’, 10/25/04 on Sundance TV channel.
Cognitive dissonance is a condition first proposed by the psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956, relating to his hypothesis of cognitive consistency.
Cognitive dissonance is a state of opposition between cognitions. For the purpose of cognitive consistency theory, cognitions are defined as being an attitude, emotion, belief or value, or even a mixture of these. In brief, the theory of cognitive dissonance holds that contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compel the human mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, so as to minimize the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions.
The main criticism of the cognitive consistency hypothesis is that it is impossible to verify or falsify by experiment. Even so, experiments have been attempted to quantify this hypothetical drive. Opponents of this hypothesis contend that relations between cognitions can be irrelevant or not present, and cite the apparent ability of many human beings to reconcile mutually exclusive or contradictory beliefs with no apparent stress.
For example, people who smoke know smoking is a bad habit. Some rationalize their behavior by looking on the bright side: they tell themselves that smoking helps keep the weight down and that there is a greater threat to health from being overweight than from smoking. Others quit smoking. Most of us are clever enough to come up with ad hoc hypotheses or rationalizations to save cherished notions. Why we can’t apply this cleverness more competently is not explained by noting that we are led to rationalize because we are trying to reduce or eliminate cognitive dissonance. Different people deal with psychological discomfort in different ways. Some ways are clearly more reasonable than others. So, why do some people react to dissonance with cognitive competence, while others respond with cognitive incompetence?
Cognitive dissonance has been called “the mind controller’s best friend” (Levine 2003: 202). Yet, a cursory examination of cognitive dissonance reveals that it is not the dissonance, but how people deal with it, that would be of interest to someone trying to control others when the evidence seems against them.
The Skeptic’s Dictionary
There are two interesting side effects for learning:
1. If someone is called upon to learn something, which contradicts what he or she already thinks they know — particularly if they are committed to that prior knowledge — they are likely to resist the new learning. Even Carl Rogers recognized this. Accommodation is more difficult than Assimilation, in Piaget’s terms.
2. — counter-intuitively, perhaps —if learning something has been difficult, uncomfortable, or even humiliating enough, people are less likely to concede that the content of what has been learned is useless, pointless or valueless. To do so would be to admit that one has been “had”, or “conned”.
Teaching & Learning
Origins and the experiment
In Festinger and Carlsmith’s classic 1957 experiment, students were made to perform tedious and meaningless tasks, consisting of turning pegs quarter-turns, then removing them from a board, then putting them back in, and so forth. Subjects rated these tasks very negatively. After a long period of doing this, students were told the experiment was over and they could leave.
However, the experimenter then asked the subject for a small favor. They were told that a needed research assistant was not able to make it to the experiment, and the subject was asked to fill in and try to persuade another subject (who was actually a confederate) that the dull, boring tasks the subject had just completed were actually interesting and engaging. Some subjects were paid $20 for the favor, another group was paid $1, and a control group was not requested to perform the favor.
When asked to rate the peg-turning tasks, those in the $1 group showed a much greater propensity to embellish in favor of the experiment when asked to lie about the tasks. Experimenters theorized that when paid only $1, students were forced to internalize the attitude they were induced to express, because they had no other justification. Those in the $20 condition, it is argued, had an obvious external justification for their behavior, which the experimenters claim explains their lesser willingness to lie favoring the tasks in the experiment.
The researchers further speculated that with only $1, subjects faced insufficient justification and therefore “cognitive dissonance”, so when they were asked to lie about the tasks, they sought to relieve this hypothetical stress by literally changing their attitude in a process akin to auto brainwashing in order really to believe that they found the tasks enjoyable.
Put simply, the experimenters concluded that human beings, when asked to lie without being given sufficient justification, would convince themselves that the lie they are asked to tell is the truth. Only when sufficient justification is given, researchers speculated, are human beings able to resist having their mind instantly reprogrammed by any request that they lie.
Festinger further tested his theory on observations of counterintuitive belief persistence of most members of a UFO doomsday cult and their increased proselytization after the leader’s prophecy failed.
Conflicting cognitions: cognitive dissonance
Once two cognitions are held and there is a conflict between them, one falls into a state of cognitive dissonance. This may be demonstrated by someone purchasing a brand of washing machine, initially believing that it was the best product to buy. One’s cognition is that a good washing machine has been bought. However, after the purchase, one may be exposed to another cognition informing one that there is a better washing machine out on the market (for example, through an advertisement). This then leads to an imbalance between cognitions and a psychological state, which needs to seek consonance between the two cognitions.
Two kinds of dissonance
Theorists have identified two different kinds of cognitive dissonance that are relevant to decision making: pre-decisional dissonance and post-decisional dissonance.
Pre-decisional dissonance might be analogous to what Freud called “compensation”. When a test showed that subjects had latent sexist attitudes, they later awarded a female a larger reward than a male in what they were told was a different study. Researchers hypothesized that the larger reward reduced dissonance by attempting to show that they were not sexist in the later decision. An alternate explanation, suggested by critics of the cognitive consistency hypothesis, is that the subjects may simply have been trying to influence the attitudes of the testers.
The more well known form of dissonance, however, is post-decisional dissonance. Many studies have shown that people with compulsive disorders like gambling will subjectively reinforce decisions or commitments they have already made. In one simple experiment, experimenters found that betters at a horse track believed bets were more likely to succeed immediately after being placed. According to the hypothesis, the possibility of being wrong is dissonance arousing, so people will change their perceptions to make their decisions seem better.
This ignores the fundamental principle in decision making, that a decision is to be made if it will produce a better outcome than the alternatives. It also ignores the known potential of afterthought to produce novel thinking that dispels impulse behavior.
Post-decisional dissonance may be increased by the importance of the issue, the length of time the subject takes to make or avoid the decision, and the extent to which the decision could be reversed.
Further Propositions by Festinger
Festinger proposed that cognitive dissonance is a “negative drive state”, a similar psychological tension to hunger and thirst and that people will seek to resolve this tension.
Reduction of cognitive dissonance, Festinger believed, is good because one feels better, and because one can come closer to consonance by eliminating contradictions. On the other hand some of the ways of reduction of cognitive dissonance involve a distortion of the truth, which may cause wrong decisions. The harder way of changing favorable cognitions may in the longer run be better.
When confronted with two belief cognitions that contradict each other, Festinger suggests the dissonance can be resolved by finding and adding a third piece of information relevant to the two beliefs. For example, if Sam believes that elected officials are trustworthy, but also believes that elected officials have broken his trust, then the cognitive dissonance can be resolved by discovering that all elected officials lie. This enables Sam to (it is to be hoped) still hold that elected officials are still largely trustworthy, but that they also all lie.
Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief.
There are three ways to eliminate dissonance:
(1) Reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs,
(2) Add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or
(3) Change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent.
Dissonance occurs most often in situations where an individual must choose between two incompatible beliefs or actions. The greatest dissonance is created when the two alternatives are equally attractive. Furthermore, attitude change is more likely in the direction of less incentive since this results in lower dissonance. In this respect, dissonance theory is contradictory to most behavioral theories, which would predict greater attitude change with increased incentive (i.e., reinforcement).
A majority of Republicans believe there is a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, that Weapons of Mass Destruction have been found in Iraq, that the world approves of America’s ‘Go-It-Alone War’, that George Bush is a ‘compassionate conservative’, that Bush’s “Leave No Child Behind” program is working, and that outsourcing of American jobs to 3rd World countries is beneficial to America (not just the wealthy and big business).
(Tabacco Comments: I think these people are called “sociopaths” by psychiatrists.)
“Antisocial personality disorder” defined: Psychopathic personality; Sociopathic personality; Personality disorder – antisocial;
Antisocial personality disorder is a psychiatric condition characterized by chronic behavior that manipulates, exploits, or violates the rights of others. This behavior is often criminal.
A person with antisocial personality disorder:
Breaks the law repeatedly
Lies, steals, and fights often
Disregards the safety of self and others
Demonstrates a lack of guilt
Had a childhood diagnosis (or symptoms consistent with) conduct disorder
Individuals with antisocial personality disorder are often angry and arrogant but may be capable of superficial wit and charm. They may be adept at flattery and at manipulating the emotions of others. People with antisocial personality disorder often have extensive substance abuse and legal problems.
(Tabacco Comments: Any similarity between the definitions above, George W. Bush and members of his administration, is purely coincidental and obvious to anyone, who is neither predisposed to Republicanism or neo-conservatism nor suffering from cognitive dissonance.)
Devout Christians have always had “cognitive dissonance” with scientific advancements and discoveries such as Galileo’s assertion that the earth revolves around the sun and not the contrary, that women are not inferior to men by virtue of their gender per Biblical assertion, and that Evolution is much closer to the truth than the Biblical Adam and Eve myth.
It is a very useful term applying to a great many people and explains why some people support George Bush when his moral turpitude should be obvious to one and all. One is not a Christian because he or she says they are. One is a Christian who does Christian deeds; and no announcement of that condition is necessary or required.
Cognitive Dissonance is the only possible explanation for poor or middle-income Republican voters, who consider hatred of Blacks, opposition to homosexuals and abortion, Bill Clinton’s personal sexual peccadilloes, or the possibility that one day they might become a “have more” as reasonable justification for voting Republican. At the same time they ignore a trumped up war for oil based on lies causing the deaths of 100,000 Iraqis and 1,850 American soldiers, the outsourcing of our jobs to 3rd World Countries, CAFTA, NAFTA, undermining of Affirmative Action, disenfranchisement of Black voters in Florida and Ohio, reversing the graduated tax structure to placate the richest among us at the expense of the poor and middleclass, Eminent Domain, rampant mortgage and business bankruptcies, etc. etc. It isn’t just the Republican leadership, but the blind, cognitive dissonant middleclass, which has allowed this leprosy to infect the body politic. Like the $1 subjects in the test above, without sufficient justification, these mindless twits have made up their own excuses.
In summation, may I say that either the Bush administration has taken rationalization to new levels, or they have completely overcome the cognitive dissonance phenomenon – in short, they are unconscionable liars!