Cognitive Dissonance

Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in the military court drama A Few Good Men made famous the line “You can’t handle the truth.” And for good reason, lots of people really can’t handle the truth, especially when the truth requires admitting a personal fault, like messing up at work, not acting with concern for others, or not being as talented as we’d like to think we are.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when someone holds two psychologically inconsistent beliefs (or attitudes or opinions) that create an unpleasant mental tension. For example, let’s say I believe that I’m a charitable and giving person. What happens when I take an action, or hear evidence, that is the obverse of that belief? For example, and this is fictitious, what if my neighbor tells me that I’m the only person in the neighborhood who didn’t donate to her food drive for the homeless? I’m going to feel some unpleasant tension. I believe that I’m charitable, and yet I just learned that I acted in an uncharitable way.

This cognitive dissonance hurts my brain, and I’m going to want to do something to reduce this unpleasantness. There are multiple ways I could handle this.

  1. I could accept what my neighbor says, admit my mistake, apologize, and start atoning for my failure.
  2. I could revise my original belief that I’m charitable (I’ll just accept my Scrooge-ness and move on with my life). But a quick look around the planet tells us that admitting fault or discarding decades of positive self-image are not most people’s first choices.
  3. I could rationalize or self-justify my apparent lack of charitableness by diminishing my neighbor. This could occur as a thought or even a declaration spoken out loud. For example: “I only give to ‘legitimate’ charities where I know the food will really go to homeless people, and this particular neighbor has always been shifty. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I once saw her pick and eat a grape from the produce section of our local supermarket, and I’m positive she didn’t pay for it. And now I’m going to give to her supposed charity? Oh, heck no.”
  4. I could concoct a life philosophy that says “charity begins at home” (thus freeing me from any obligation to donate to my neighbor’s charity). I could even print bumper stickers to that effect and proselytize my neighbors.
  5. I could tell myself that donating a few cans of food won’t make a difference, so I’m going to donate when I have more money and can truly have an impact.

These are just a few of the potential ways we can respond when cognitive dissonance invades our brains—all because we don’t want to live in a state of mental conflict. It doesn’t feel good to simultaneously hold inconsistent beliefs about ourselves such as “I’m charitable, but I’m not charitable.” It’s a maddening existence. So, if people learn some truth that is inconsistent with their existing beliefs about themselves, they are going to somehow change their attitudes or rationalize or diminish this discordant information (even if this information is the truth).

The stronger or more important people’s original belief is, the more cognitive dissonance they will feel. Let’s look at another example.

If I consider myself a good cook and yet I cook a terrible meal, the cognitive dissonance I feel will be proportional to the importance of my belief about being a good cook. But if it’s a belief that doesn’t matter that much to me, you can criticize my meal and I’ll accept your feedback. I’ll likely suggest we order a pizza instead of eating my lousy food and not give your criticism another thought.

But, if you were to say that I exhibited awful parenting skills when I yelled at my kids, you’d see me fight that cognitive dissonance because being a good father is core to my self-worth. In a situation like this, I may rationalize my behavior: “The kids didn’t even hear me,” or diminish you: “Puh-lease, you wouldn’t know good parenting if it bit you on the rear.”

The truth can be hard to hear, especially when it challenges or violates our self-image or beliefs. Cognitive dissonance occurs when we justify or explain away the discrepancy in order to alleviate the pain of conflicting beliefs.

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance first received scientific recognition in the mid-1950s when social psychologist Leon Festinger and two of his peers gained undercover entry into a small doomsday cult called the Seekers.[i] The group was led by a Chicago homemaker, Dorothy Martin, who claimed the ability to channel superior beings from the planet Clarion.

This alien authority supposedly warned Martin and her followers of a great flood that would destroy the Earth on December 21, 1954. The prophecy stated that only true believers would be spared. This was good news for the Seekers who were promised safe transport to another planet. Martin channeled clear instruction on how the group should prepare for pickup via flying saucer at midnight on December 17, and the group moved into action, giving up their homes, quitting their jobs, liquidating their savings, and even divorcing nonbelieving spouses.

Festinger’s group of researchers didn’t actually believe the world would end. They faked their belief so they could join the group and observe the impact of the failed prophecy on the believers’ faith. When the world didn’t end, would the Seekers reduce the cognitive dissonance by saying, “Whoops, my bad, I guess that was pretty stupid of me,” or would they concoct some kind of rationalization?

On the designated night of December 17th, the group gathered in eager anticipation. When a flying saucer failed to appear at midnight, Festinger observed that members of the group appeared nervous. At 12:10 a.m. they looked shocked. By 2 a.m. worry and anxiety prevailed as people sobbed and wept. As I noted earlier, cognitive dissonance can be painful.

Much had been sacrificed both personally and professionally, and some in the group began to openly wonder if the Clarions had abandoned them. As more time elapsed without a saucer in sight, others in the group began to question the validity of the prophecy. Then, at 4:45 a.m., Martin resolved the group’s cognitive dissonance when she was gifted with another “prophecy.” The message said that the world would be spared because the Seekers “had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”

Festinger had his answer. The cognitive dissonance vanished as the Seekers rationalized that their actions had not been in vain and their prophecy had not been wrong. The formerly media-shy group further reduced their cognitive dissonance by jumping into an urgent media campaign, alerting the press, distributing flyers, and taking to the streets to spread the message that it was only because of their small group’s sacrifices and faith that the Earth would still exist on the morning of December 21.

The Seekers may seem like an extreme situation, but cognitive dissonance occurs in all kinds of situations as a way of lessening psychological tension and reducing anxiety when people are faced with feedback or evidence that contradicts an existing belief, attitude, or opinion

[i] Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails (Pinter & Martin Publishers, 2008).

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