Cognitive Dissonance Theory and How it Impacts US by@roxanamurariu

Cognitive Dissonance Theory and How it Impacts US

June 6th 2022 4,018 reads
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Cognitive Dissonance theory is a theory of how we react in the face of conflicting cognitions (ideas, beliefs, values or behaviours) and behaviours) According to this theory, people strive to keep their knowledge, attitudes or behaviours consistent (consonant). When we come across contradictory information that can’t be both true, we try to reduce contradicting (dissonant) cognitions and restore equilibrium by altering our attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. We can reduce cognitive dissonance through: changing our cognitions or behaviours (quitting smoking) or adding new behaviours (reducing the importance of existing cognitions).
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Roxana Murariu

Web developer writing essays about mindset, productivity, tech and others. Personal blog:

Cognitive dissonance is a theory proposed by Leon Festinger in the 1950s related to how we react in the face of conflicting cognitions (ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions) and behaviors. According to this theory, people strive to keep their knowledge, attitudes or behaviors consistent (consonant).

So, when we come across contradictory information that can’t be both true, we try to reduce contradicting (dissonant) cognitions and restore equilibrium by altering our attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.

Festinger argued that to cope with contradictory ideas or experiences, some of us would blindly believe what we want to believe, modifying our worldview to protect our egos or deeply held beliefs.

In When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World, Festinger, alongside Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter, describes a study about a small group who believed in an imminent apocalypse where devastating floods would come and swipe away cities and countries.

The authors, who were already studying how prophecy disconfirmation affects groups of believers, infiltrated that group to collect data before, during, and after the prophecy would fail.

As expected, the prophesied date for the inevitable flood came and went, causing a dissonance between the groups’ beliefs and the harsh reality. Members of the cult reacted differently. Those with less prior social commitment, conviction or less access to support inside the cult left the group.

But those members who had much higher group support, who ended relationships with non-believers, who left, lost or neglected jobs or studies, who gave money to the group or sold everything they had to prepare for their departure on a flying saucer that would rescue them from the flood, those members became even more committed to their beliefs.

They started to give interviews, call newspapers, and proselytize because they began to believe that the flood didn’t happen because of their strong faithfulness. These findings were broadly in line with what the scientists predicted would happen.

However, Festinger, Riecken and Schachter’s study was not without criticism because, among other aspects, observers and the press interfered and distorted the member’s cult actions and did not allow the series of events generated by the cult members to be observed in isolation.

Nevertheless, the cognitive dissonance theory is considered one of the most influential and researched theories in psychology.

Examples of discomforting contradictions regarding our attitudes and behaviors are aplenty. Some people know the health effects of smoking and continue to smoke. Some were raised to believe that people who drink alcohol are bad, and then we see a friend of ours who we know is a good person drinking alcohol. There is a test coming tomorrow, and we told ourselves we have to study but instead, we are watching Netflix.

How Can We Reduce Cognitive Dissonance?

The ways that we can reduce cognitive dissonance (sometimes we can’t resolve it entirely) is through:

  • Changing our cognitions or behaviors
  • Reducing the importance of our cognitions
  • Adding new cognitions or behaviors

In the example of smoking, we have a battle between “I smoke” and “Smoking is terrible for my health“. We can change our existing behavior (quitting smoking). Most often than not, people will choose to work on their cognitions:

Modifying existing cognitions:

I don’t smoke that much.

Reduce the importance of the cognitions through effort justification:

I eat healthily, so it might not matter that much that I smoke.

Why shouldn’t I enjoy my smoking habit? Life is too short, anyway.

Adding new behaviors or cognitions through rationalization:

(trivializing) Research is not conclusive that smoking causes cancer.

(denying or ignoring) There is no evidence that smoking causes cancer.

Adding exercising as a habit to compensate for smoking.

Let’s take another example of cognitive dissonance. “Parents that raise children that act like bullies are not good parents. I am a good parent.” versus “Your child hit my child and called them names“.

Changing our existing cognitions:

I am not a good parent.

Reducing the importance of the cognitions through effort justification:

The other child started it, and my child was merely defending themselves.

My child is stressed from moving city, going to a new school and having no friends in the area.

Adding new cognitions or behaviors:

(trivializing) Kids will be kids. This is what they do.

(denying or ignoring) Nope, it never happened. My child would not hurt a fly.

(new behaviors) Talk to my child about what happened and what is bullying. Read books together about bullying. Talk to the school to see if there were other instances where my child acted like a bully. Talk to my child, my family and the other family regularly to see if behaviors have improved.

A classic example of effort justification is Aesop’s fable, The Fox and the Grapes. Failing to reach some grapes hanging high on a vine, the fox justified that he never wanted those grapes as they were sour.

Other examples of modifying cognitions:

Covid-19 is just a hoax.

The Romanian saying, “do what the priest says, not what the priest does”.

Another Romanian saying, “reconcile both goat and cabbage”, based on the wolf, goat and cabbage riddle.

Or that definitely tomorrow we will be exercising to work off this delicious doughnut we are eating now.

Cognitive Dissonance and Sounds

Sounds can also create cognitive dissonance, especially for horror or comedic effects. We associate high-pitched sounds with tiny, harmless things and loud, low-pitched sounds with dangerous things. So, when we find monsters that make screeching, high-pitched sounds, we are even more unsettled than if they were “regular” monsters.

And in comedies, we often see large characters with squeaky, high-pitched voices or tiny, cute characters with deep, menacing voices. Following the same pattern, watching a frightening scene in a movie with a happy song over makes the scene even more terrifying.

The Ben Franklin Effect 

In his autobiography, the brilliant polymath and social engineer Benjamin Franklin explained how he dealt with a rival legislator.

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

In this case, the cognitive dissonance was between the subject’s negative attitude towards Franklin and the knowledge that they did a favor to Franklin. They started to see Franklin as more favorable to ease the internal conflict.

Of course, another explanation would be that the other person wanted to reciprocate an attempt by Franklin to have friendly relations.

Cognitive Dissonance and Biased Thinking

At its core, cognitive dissonance describes the confusing and discomforting state of having two contradicting cognitions that cause us significant stress. Thus, we tend to seek to avoid this imbalanced state.

As we saw, one way to solve this conflictual state is to modify our existing behaviors or cognitions (stop smoking or admit that we are terrible parents). Naturally, this method of accepting painful truths or starting challenging behaviors is quite stressful, and we turn to other solutions. So, we tend to solve moments of dissonance through biased thinking.

One such bias is the actor-observer bias: Character is to blame for others. But for us, circumstances are to blame.

If you shout at your children, you are a weak, insecure, anxious parent. But if I shout at my child, it is because of justified reasons. I didn’t sleep well last night. I am hungry. I am stressed at work.

Confirmation bias is another bias that we turn to alleviate our pain of being in a conflicting situation. This bias is a tendency to ignore evidence that contradicts our deeply held beliefs and favor evidence that supports our beliefs.

Especially nowadays, with the massive data that social apps hold on us, we should be wary of our confirmation bias and the media diet we are fed by an algorithm.

Whenever we find out a new piece of information, we tend to judge it. If it is consistent with our world model, we are inclined to accept it. If it is inconsistent, then we are tempted to refuse it. The algorithm plays this routine repeatedly, learning about our preferences and keeping us engaged for longer and longer in a walled garden where the stress and unpleasantness of different opinions and mental models are almost non-existent.

Enter virtual social bubbles and echo chambers where our biases are distorted and amplified because engaging with social media algorithms is autocatalytic (the process feeds itself).

For example, social media can make us feel jealous, angry, hateful even. We start feeling bad about ourselves, maybe experiencing a nagging sensation that we are not enough. So, we check more social media to find a tribe where we belong, a community where we feel at peace scattering negative messages about other tribes that made us feel conflicted about ourselves.

The Walled Gardens of Social Media: From the Free Web to the “Free” Web

Cognitive Dissonance and Doublethink

In his masterpiece 1984, George Orwell coined the term doublethink, where “subjects are expected to simultaneously accept two conflicting beliefs as truth, often at odds with their memory or sense of reality.”




These words are the Party’s slogans, displayed in massive letters on the white pyramid of the Ministry of Truth.

Doublethink is very similar to cognitive dissonance as they describe the same phenomenon (contrary beliefs) but with different reactions. We simply accept the two contrary views in doublethink, with no mental stress or discomfort.

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress we tend to have when encountering two contradictory beliefs. When there is no cognitive dissonance, we have doublethink.

The way Orwell defined it, doublethink is not hypocrisy as the “doublethinking” person deliberately forgot the contradiction between the opposing beliefs, then forgot that they forgot the contradiction, and so on, an infinite loop of intentional forgetting, which Orwell calls “controlled insanity”.

Examples of modern doublethink:

Schrödinger’s immigrant: Immigrants are lazy, and immigrants steal our jobs. Immigrants drain our medical services, and immigrants are staffing our medical services. Immigrants stay only with their kind, and immigrants steal our women.

In our jobs, we must stand out and yet fit in.

Or take Putin’s language about the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Using different ways to justify our actions or cognitions is not necessarily bad, as this process allows us to sleep at night. Also, cognitive dissonance is shape-shifting: for the same contradiction, people will react differently.

Some would experience only minor stabs of pain, while others despair incessantly. The same person would respond differently to the same contradiction across years as our set of beliefs, experiences, ideas, and attitudes change.

Too often, we fear our flaws, so we go along with the softer songs of self-justification. And other times, we persecute ourselves when facing cognitive dissonance by becoming a trifecta of the victim, judge and executioner.

Heavy are the chains we build to bind ourselves.

Also, the way some cult members chose to deal with contradictory information in Feistinger’s book is a cautionary tale that we can close the eyes of the dead, but often we can’t open the eyes of the living.

Dissonance is disquieting because to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity and, as Albert Camus observed, we humans are creatures who spend our lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd. At the heart of it, Festinger’s theory is about how people strive to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful.

Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson – Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

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