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Cognitive Dissonance – the story of your life.

The Takeaway? 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 were only allowed to know five things about human 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 normal human psychology.

Examples

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 (dissonant) with one another. As another example, I have an opinion of myself as a generous person – but I always walk past beggars in the street without giving them anything.

In both examples, the inconsistency between my views about myself and my actions makes me feel uncomfortable. So, in order to reduce the discomfort, I might invent details or reinterpret events to justify my actions and make them better fit my views about myself… “Insurance companies are all crooks; it’s dog eat dog; and you know what, maybe my neck 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’s probably got a car parked round the corner; of course I’d have given him money if I had some change”.

Changing our behaviour is the alternative to these mental manoeuvres – but changing our perceptions is usually much easier.

We can all think of similar examples of things where, motivated by guilt perhaps, we told ourselves a story to ‘square the circle’. Rather than feel like crap about ourselves, we adjust the story. “The bad thing I did 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 reinterpret our own behaviours and motives. Sometimes we reinterpret 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.

And equally important, once we’ve told ourselves a reinterpreted version of events often enough, we come to completely believe it ourselves.

Despite the misunderstandings of at least one online psychotherapist, cognitive dissonance is not a mental disorder – and the perceptual distortions it creates are not phenomena unique to so-called ‘narcissists’!

Our unwillingness to change our opinions

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 other people or events. Our general opinions about the world (political, moral, interpersonal, religious, etc, etc) are often life-long beliefs. And the more strongly these opinions are held, the more uncomfortable it is for us to contemplate having them overturned – and the more willing we are to bend our perceptions of events and facts to make them consistent with our beliefs.

The practical consequences of this in our everyday lives are massive. In particular it 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 because they are so emotionally committed to their own opposing view (or committed to their self-view of being correct and truthful). It is probably fair to say that during the 4-year Brexit debate, for example, not one key 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. 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. 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. 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. It is entirely determined by cultural values – 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. 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.

1 Comment

  1. Chris Mabey

    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?

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