When people (all of us) are confronted with facts that contradict beliefs that are important, it makes us very uncomfortable. But more often than not, it’s the awkward facts that get dumped! This article describes how and why.
If we could only know five things about human social psychology, Cognitive Dissonance Theory (the brainchild of Leon Festinger; 1957) would have to be among them. To put that the other way round, without knowing how cognitive dissonance operates, we cannot fully understand human social interactions.
Cognitive dissonance describes the discomfort we feel when we hold two thoughts simultaneously that contradict one another. Here are a couple of examples…
Let’s say I have a belief about myself as being an honest person – but I’m also making a personal injury claim for a whiplash injury that I know I never had.
These two thoughts (cognitions) are inconsistent (or dissonant) with one another. As another example, let’s say I have an opinion of myself as being a generous person – but somehow, I always seem to walk past beggars in the street without giving them anything.
In both examples, there is an inconsistency between my views about myself and my actions. And that makes me feel uncomfortable. So, I have two ways to reduce that discomfort. One is to change my behaviour… I could discontinue the fraudulent insurance claim. Or I could start giving money to beggars. But there is an easier way to reduce the discomfort…
Changing our perceptions to match our actions
I can reinterpret events to justify my ‘bad’ actions and make them fit my positive views about myself. “Insurance companies? They’re all crooks. It’s dog eat dog out there. And you know what, maybe my neck really does hurt, now I come to think about it.” And that beggar? “I’m doing him a favour by walking past – he’ll only spend the money on drugs. He probably owns a car and claims benefits. Of course I’d have given him money if I had some change”.
Changing our perceptions is usually much easier than changing our behaviour.
We can all think of similar examples of things where, maybe motivated by guilt, we told ourselves a story to ‘square the circle’. Rather than feel like crap about ourselves, we create a self-justifying narrative. “That bad thing I did? It never happened. Alright, it did happen… but they deserved it anyway.”
We’re all in it
The important psychological point to grasp is that we are all motivated to adjust our perceptions in ways that allow us to feel more comfortable.
Sometimes these perceptual shifts create a new story. And sometimes we merely reinterpret our own behaviours and motives – or the actions, thoughts and motivations of other people. In either event, realigning our perceptions so that they make us feel comfortable and even righteous is psychologically normal and universal.
The process is universal. And although at least one online psychotherapist misunderstands this simple fact, cognitive dissonance is not a mental disorder – nor are the perceptual distortions it a ‘special’ identifier of so-called ‘narcissists’!
Believing is knowing
Once we’ve told ourselves a reinterpreted version of events often enough, we come to completely believe it ourselves.
Through cognitive dissonance, we can take things we once knew (for example, that it’s dishonest to scam insurance companies), and literally lose that knowledge. Because we have altered our perceptions, we have created less knowledge in ourselves – without being consciously aware of it. We have created unknown unknowns!
Changing opinions to make them all fit
The examples discussed earlier illustrate cases where people experience cognitive dissonance and discomfort when their actions are inconsistent with their views about themselves (as, say, honest and generous).
But cognitive dissonance theory also describes circumstances where our more general opinions about the world are contradicted by events and sometimes by people who are better informed. Although humans seek out meaning in the world, we often want that meaning to be consistent with everything else we understand! We seek consistency as much as truth.
This especially applies to our political, moral, interpersonal, religious (etc, etc) views. These are often beliefs that develop over a life-time. And they become deeply ingrained, often defining our sense of who we are. Having these overturned by ‘alternative facts’ is very uncomfortable indeed. And this makes us willing and keen to bend our perceptions of events, facts and our beliefs to make them all consistent with one another.
The practical consequences of cognitive dissonance in our everyday lives are massive. In particular dissonance explains why trying to change people’s opinions by logical argument alone will often fail. The reason why someone else cannot see our brilliant point of view, is usually not because they are stupid! Rather, their emotional commitment to their own opposing view is so great that they do not want to hear anything contradictory. It is probably fair to say that during the 4-year Brexit debate, for example, not one key political player changed their mind about whether Brexit was a good or bad idea.
And perhaps that is the central point… We all like to think that our opinions are logical, the product of objective reasoning. Christians and atheists both attribute their opinions about creation to dispassionate observation of historical events. The reality, however, is that all our opinions are emotionally loaded and value laden. Our opinions define who we are – and our sense of who we are also shapes our opinions.
The practical takeaway – in more detail.
1. We must know ourselves
All the important opinions we possess are learned – and many are emotionally loaded. We cannot understand the dynamics of people’s beliefs or opinions without taking that emotional context into account. Opinions, other people’s and our own, can rarely be changed by logic on its own.
2. Timing is important
The ‘right kind’ of early learning is important because, as cognitive dissonance theory makes clear, our early learning becomes increasingly hard to change as it becomes embedded in our sense of who we are. Of course, the educational problem, for parents and teachers and religious leaders, is that we all have different views about what ‘the right kind of’ learning looks like! What we can say for certain is that cultural values determine completely the nature of ‘the right kind of learning. And every society and culture has a different take on that.
Currently, western culture is very sentimentalised. And, keen to instil confidence and ambition in children, our culture encourages children to believe that they should ‘follow their dreams’ – and be ‘whatever they want to be’. The problem is that at age 6/7 they all want to be rock-stars – and many (the vast majority, in fact) will not be whatever it was they wanted to be at the age of 6/7. Some will then feel a sense of desperate failure. Others, driven by the need for consistency, will delude themselves that they actually are great.
There is certainly a lot to be said for encouraging modest ambition and hard work in children. But the current practice of encouraging superstar expectations in children – ambitions that for the vast majority will end in disappointment – can only create dissonance between their reality and the superstar status they expected. Many children today are being encouraged to emotionally stake their sense of self-worth and self-identity on dreams that are highly unlikely to work out.
3. Self-knowledge is emotional!
The trick to changing viewpoints is not to appeal to reason, but to unlock emotional commitment. It is a truth that applies to changing other people’s opinions and our own opinions too, especially when we are unhappy with our lives.
The first step towards objectivity in our opinions (Brexit, the existence/absence of gods, the value of staying in a relationship) is to recognise and observe our emotional commitments to those opinions. Only by trying to observe our rationalisations in action can we – to some extent – gain control over them.
We can never be free from the pulls and pushes of cognitive dissonance. It will always distort our beliefs and values. But there is much value in being aware of how it operates to shape our lives.
A belated thank you for helping me get my PhD. When we were both at Henley in the early 80s I could not explain why graduates claimed to enjoy their first jobs. Over coffee you mentioned Festinger and my thesis turned a corner. Having made a very public, largely irrevocable job choice from several offers…6 months later these students were cognitively bound to their decision.
Q: But how long for?