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cognitive dissonance

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.) -- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

"Before we try to explain something, we should be sure it actually happened."--Ray Hyman

If you want to prove anything, just assume p and not p. From any contradiction you can validly infer q, any other proposition.

I'm confused. Is light a wave or a particle?

Cognitive dissonance is a theory of human motivation that asserts that it is psychologically uncomfortable to hold contradictory cognitions. The theory is that dissonance, being unpleasant, motivates a person to change his cognition, attitude, or behavior. This theory was first explored in detail by social psychologist Leon Festinger, who described it this way:

Dissonance and consonance are relations among cognitions that is, among opinions, beliefs, knowledge of the environment, and knowledge of one's own actions and feelings. Two opinions, or beliefs, or items of knowledge are dissonant with each other if they do not fit together; that is, if they are inconsistent, or if, considering only the particular two items, one does not follow from the other (Festinger 1956: 25).

He argued that there are three ways to deal with cognitive dissonance. He did not consider these mutually exclusive.

  1. One may try to change one or more of the beliefs, opinions, or behaviors involved in the dissonance;
  2. One may try to acquire new information or beliefs that will increase the existing consonance and thus cause the total dissonance to be reduced; or,
  3. One may try to forget or reduce the importance of those cognitions that are in a dissonant relationship (Festinger 1956: 25-26).

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.

For example, Marian Keech (real name: Dorothy Martin) was the leader of a UFO cult in the 1950s. She claimed to get messages from extraterrestrials, known as The Guardians, through automatic writing. Like the Heaven's Gate folks forty years later, Keech and her followers, known as The Seekers or The Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, were waiting to be picked up by flying saucers. In Keech's prophecy, her group of eleven was to be saved just before the earth was to be destroyed by a massive flood on December 21, 1954. When it became evident that there would be no flood and the Guardians weren't stopping by to pick them up, Keech

became elated. She said she'd just received a telepathic message from the Guardians saying that her group of believers had spread so much light with their unflagging faith that God had spared the world from the cataclysm (Levine 2003: 206).

More important, the Seekers didn't abandon her. Most became more devoted after the failed prophecy. (Only two left the cult when the world didn't end.) "Most disciples not only stayed but, having made that decision, were now even more convinced than before that Keech had been right all along....Being wrong turned them into true believers (ibid.)." Some people will go to bizarre lengths to avoid inconsistency between their cherished beliefs and the facts. But why do people interpret the same evidence in contrary ways?

The Seekers would not have waited for the flying saucer if they thought it might not come. So, when it didn't come, one would think that a competent thinker would have seen this as falsifying Keech's claim that it would come. However, the incompetent thinkers were rendered incompetent by their devotion to Keech. Their belief that a flying saucer would pick them up was based on faith, not evidence. Likewise, their belief that the failure of the prophesy shouldn't count against their belief was another act of faith. With this kind of irrational thinking, it may seem pointless to produce evidence to try to persuade people of the error of their ways. Their belief is not based on evidence, but on devotion to a person. That devotion can be so great that even the most despicable behavior by one's prophet can be rationalized. There are many examples of people so devoted to another that they will rationalize or ignore extreme mental and physical abuse by their cult leader (or spouse or boyfriend). If the basis for a person's belief is irrational faith grounded in devotion to a powerful personality, then the only option that person has when confronted with evidence that should undermine her faith would seem to be to continue to be irrational, unless her faith was not that strong to begin with. The interesting question, then, is not about cognitive dissonance but about faith. What was it about Keech that led some people to have faith in her and what was it about those people that made them vulnerable to Keech? And what was different about the two who left the cult?

"Research shows that three characteristics are related to persuasiveness: perceived authority, honesty, and likeability" (ibid. 31). Furthermore, if a person is physically attractive, we tend to like that person and the more we like a person the more we tend to trust him or her (ibid. 57). Research also shows that "people are perceived as more credible when they make eye contact and speak with confidence, no matter what they have to say" (ibid. 33).

According to Robert Levine, "studies have uncovered surprisingly little commonality in the type of personality that joins cults: there's no single cult-prone personality type" (ibid. 144). This fact surprised Levine. When he began his investigation of cults he "shared the common stereotype that most joiners were psychological misfits or religious fanatics" (ibid. 81). What he found instead was that many cult members are attracted to what appears to be a loving community. "One of the ironies of cults is that the craziest groups are often composed of the most caring people (ibid. 83)." Levine says of cult leader Jim Jones that he was "a supersalesman who exerted most every rule of persuasion" (ibid. 213). He had authority, perceived honesty, and likeability. It is likely the same could be said of Marian Keech. It also seems likely that many cult followers have found a surrogate family and a surrogate mother or father or both in the cult leader.

It should also be remembered that in most cases people have not arrived at their irrational beliefs overnight. They have come to them over a period of time with gradually escalated commitments (ibid. chapter 7). Nobody would join a cult if the pitch were: "Follow me. Drink this poisoned-but-flavored water and commit suicide." Yet, not everybody in the cult drank the poison and two of Keech's followers quit the cult when the prophecy failed. How were they different from the others? The explanation seems simple: their faith in their leader was weak. According to Festinger, the two who left Keech--Kurt Freund and Arthur Bergen--were lightly committed to begin with (Festinger 1956: 208).

Even people who erroneously think their beliefs are scientific may come by their notions gradually and their commitment may escalate to the point of irrationality. Psychologist Ray Hyman provides a very interesting example of cognitive dissonance and how one chiropractor dealt with it.

Some years ago I participated in a test of applied kinesiology at Dr. Wallace Sampson's medical office in Mountain View, California. A team of chiropractors came to demonstrate the procedure. Several physician observers and the chiropractors had agreed that chiropractors would first be free to illustrate applied kinesiology in whatever manner they chose. Afterward, we would try some double-blind tests of their claims.

The chiropractors presented as their major example a demonstration they believed showed that the human body could respond to the difference between glucose (a "bad" sugar) and fructose (a "good" sugar). The differential sensitivity was a truism among "alternative healers," though there was no scientific warrant for it. The chiropractors had volunteers lie on their backs and raise one arm vertically. They then would put a drop of glucose (in a solution of water) on the volunteer's tongue. The chiropractor then tried to push the volunteer's upraised arm down to a horizontal position while the volunteer tried to resist. In almost every case, the volunteer could not resist. The chiropractors stated the volunteer's body recognized glucose as a "bad" sugar. After the volunteer's mouth was rinsed out and a drop of fructose was placed on the tongue, the volunteer, in just about every test, resisted movement to the horizontal position. The body had recognized fructose as a "good" sugar.

After lunch a nurse brought us a large number of test tubes, each one coded with a secret number so that we could not tell from the tubes which contained fructose and which contained glucose. The nurse then left the room so that no one in the room during the subsequent testing would consciously know which tubes contained glucose and which fructose. The arm tests were repeated, but this time they were double-blind -- neither the volunteer, the chiropractors, nor the onlookers was aware of whether the solution being applied to the volunteer's tongue was glucose or fructose. As in the morning session, sometimes the volunteers were able to resist and other times they were not. We recorded the code number of the solution on each trial. Then the nurse returned with the key to the code. When we determined which trials involved glucose and which involved fructose, there was no connection between ability to resist and whether the volunteer was given the "good" or the "bad" sugar.

When these results were announced, the head chiropractor turned to me and said, "You see, that is why we never do double-blind testing anymore. It never works!" At first I thought he was joking. It turned it out he was quite serious. Since he "knew" that applied kinesiology works, and the best scientific method shows that it does not work, then -- in his mind -- there must be something wrong with the scientific method. (Hyman 1999)

What distinguishes the chiropractor's rationalization from the cult member's is that the latter is based on pure faith and devotion to a guru or prophet, whereas the former is based on evidence from experience. Neither belief can be falsified because the believers won't let them be falsified: Nothing can count against them. Those who base their beliefs on experience and what they take to be empirical or scientific evidence (e.g., astrologers, palm readers, mediums, psychics, the intelligent design folks, and the chiropractor) make a pretense of being willing to test their beliefs. They only bother to submit to a test of their ideas to get proof for others. That is why we refer to their beliefs as pseudosciences. We do not refer to the beliefs of cult members as pseudoscientific, but as faith-based irrationality.

There is scant evidence that the chiropractors Wally Sampson and Ray Hyman tested take the stand they do in order to relieve cognitive dissonance. They didn't just reject the results of a single test, they rejected scientific testing altogether in favor of what they think they know from personal experience. Why? Because they consider personal experience superior to double-blind controlled experiments. Why? To avoid having to deal with cognitive dissonance? What evidence is there that these chiropractors were made the least bit uneasy by holding a belief that conflicts with the rest of the scientific community? If a person is made psychologically uncomfortable by contradictory cognitions, shouldn't there be some way to measure this discomfort, such as a rise in the level of cortisol or other stress hormones? Has anyone defending cognitive dissonance ever measured stress hormones being aroused by dissonant beliefs or relieved by rationalization? The chiropractors' misguided belief is probably not due to worrying about their self-image or removing discomfort. It is more likely due to their being arrogant and incompetent thinkers, convinced by their experience that they "know" what's going on, and probably assisted by communal reinforcement from the like-minded arrogant and incompetent thinkers they work with and are trained by. They've seen how AK works with their own eyes. They've demonstrated it many times. If anything makes them uncomfortable it might be that they can't understand how the world can be so full of idiots who can't see with their own eyes what they see!

To return to Festinger's own example, what is gained by saying that the two who left the cult had a light commitment to begin with? How is commitment measured? Do those who see the light and change their mind when the evidence contradicts their belief have a light belief. If we apply Occam's razor to the theory of cognitive dissonance, is there anything left after we explain how anyone deals with beliefs that conflict with the evidence by the more familiar concepts of changing one's mind in light of new evidence, rationalization, self-deception, irrational faith, confirmation bias, overestimation of one's intelligence and abilities, and the like? I don't think so. We shouldn't forget that some people, when confronted with strong evidence against cherished beliefs, give up their cherished beliefs, e.g., the "distinguished stratigraphy professor" at Columbia University, praised by Stephen Jay Gould, who had initially ridiculed the theory of drifting continents but “spent his last years joyously redoing his life’s work” (Ever Since Darwin, W.W. Norton & Company, 1979: 160).

Can we really explain why Sylvia Browne or the members of the military junta in Myanmar can sleep at night (assuming they do!) by appealing to the "theory of cognitive dissonance"? There are people who know what they are doing is wrong and don't care. Even a simple case that is often brought up by the defenders of the theory of cognitive dissonance — the case of the smoker who continues his habit of smoking even though he knows smoking is unhealthy — doesn't measure up. What is so cognitively uncomfortable about knowing that smoking is unhealthy and doing it anyway?

There are people who know what they are doing is wrong, but they have such contempt for the rest of us that it doesn't make them the slightest bit uncomfortable conning us. What evidence is there that people who do bad things or believe what they should know is false are concerned about their self-image? Do mafia hit men have to deal with cognitive dissonance so they can sleep at night? I'd like to see the empirical study on that one.

If cognitive dissonance were a problem, it would show up at the level of methods used to evaluate beliefs. Yet, many people seem to have no discomfort using science, logic, and reason to establish one set of beliefs, while using desire, feelings, faith, emotional attachment to a charismatic leader, and the like to establish another set of beliefs.

On the other hand, who am I to disagree with more than a half-century of scholarship in the social sciences that has firmly established the concept of cognitive dissonance? As the authors of the Wikipedia article on the topic write: "It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology." I don't deny that the concept has been influential. Nor do I deny that it has been extensively studied. What I see, however, when I look at the kinds of studies used to support the validity of the concept is a lot of confirmation bias and something akin to the psi assumption in parapsychology. The general form of the studies in support of cognitive dissonance goes like this: we predict that x will happen if we do y; if x happens when we do y it is because of cognitive dissonance; x happened when we did y, so cognitive dissonance is confirmed.* What I don't see is any attempt to formulate a test of the hypothesis that could falsify the claim that cognitive dissonance causes anything. Researchers even go so far as to claim evidence for cognitive dissonance by finding activity (using an fMRI) in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula during a test that postulated that cognitive dissonance was occurring when those parts of the brain showed activity.* This reasoning seems circular at best. It begs the question. Of the innumerable possible explanations for seeing what was seen in the fMRIs, why should we assume they indicated cognitive dissonance?

Finally, as we learn more about the fundamental tendency of human behavior to be irrational much of the time, is there really a need for a theory like cognitive dissonance to explain why human beings are influenced to do or believe the things they do? I assume most Christians believe that 1 + 1 + 1 = 3, yet many of them believe that Abraham's god is one being but three persons. They also believe that the divine nature transcends anything in the natural world and is incompatible with human nature, yet many believe that Jesus was both god and man. Finally, Catholics know that if something has all the properties of bread or wine, it would be absurd to say either is a duck or a train; yet, they believe that some bread and some wine looks like bread and wine but is actually the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. None of these folks seem the least bit bothered psychologically by these contradictory beliefs.

Finally, there must be many survivors of the 9.0 earthquake and consequent tsunami that devastated Japan on March 11, 2011, who believed in the basic goodness of a god or of nature before that date. What predictions about the beliefs of these people does cognitive dissonance make? And how would a social scientist tease out the discomfort they must feel that is due to what happened to them, their loved ones, and their neighbors and the discomfort that is due to cognitive dissonance? Would an fMRI help separate various forms of psychological discomfort? Am I criticizing hundreds of social scientists because I am made psychologically uncomfortable by their theory since it conflicts with what I believe to be true? Am I relieving my cognitive dissonance by rejecting the concept of cognitive dissonance? And was I kind to my father not because I loved him but because of the cognitive dissonance I felt due to an Oedipus complex? Would an fMRI settle the question?


* For example, Festinger and Carlsmith claimed to have found evidence for cognitive dissonance in their 1959 study Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance. Their database consisted of data collected on 71 male students in the introductory psychology course at Stanford University who were "required to spend a certain number of hours as subjects (Ss) in experiments." (The data for 60 of the students was used in the final calculations, 20 subjects in each of three groups. In other words, this was a very small study from which no grand conclusions should have been drawn.) They spent an hour doing some boring, tedious task like turning pegs a quarter turn repeatedly. It was assumed that doing something pointless for an hour would generate a strong negative attitude regarding the task. Unless you're autistic, it seems reasonable to assume that you would be bored by the task, but whether you would develop a strong negative attitude toward it seems questionable. After all, you are in a psych class, you're trying to learn something, and participation in an experiment is a course requirement. Anyway, after completing the boring task for an hour some of the subjects were asked to talk to someone introduced as another subject in the experiment, but actually an actor, and try to persuade him that the task was interesting and engaging. Some subjects were paid $20; some were paid $1. (Today, you might get 4 pints of beers for $20; in 1959 you could probably get 100 pints of beer for $20. In other words, to most college students in 1959, $20 would have represented a small windfall. Consider, however, that these are Stanford students in 1959, many of whom may not have found much difference between $1 and $20.) One group of subjects was used as a control; these subjects weren't asked to talk to anybody about the task.

At the end of the study, the subjects were asked to rate "how enjoyable" the boring tasks were on a scale of -5 to +5. The average rating for the 20 students in the control group was -.45; the average for those paid $20 was -.05; and the average for those paid $1 was +1.35.

This was explained by Festinger and Carlsmith as evidence for cognitive dissonance. The researchers theorized that people experienced dissonance between the conflicting cognitions, "I told someone that the task was interesting" but "I actually found it boring." 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, however, had an obvious external justification for their behavior, and thus experienced less dissonance.*

The difference in results might also have been a fluke. The eleven students whose data was not included were rejected for a variety of reasons, but none of them was rejected because he was an outlier. With a small group of only 20 students being averaged, a couple of outliers would skew the average. I'm not saying that is what happened in the $1 group, but just a couple of high ratings could account for the higher average than the other two groups. On the other hand, the difference in ratings might be due to something besides cognitive dissonance. Maybe it was due to psychic influence from a paranormal lab across the country. Unlikely, sure, but the authors are just assuming the different ratings can be explained by what they were trying to establish. I don't know why the $1 group rated the boring task as significantly more enjoyable than the other two groups, but I'm not convinced it had anything to do with cognitive dissonance.

Consider also that when the subjects were asked how much they learned on a scale of 0-10, the groups rated themselves about equally at about 3. If the $1 group had rated their learning at 5, would that have been taken as evidence of cognitive dissonance?The stat I find the most interesting, however, is the one regarding whether the subjects would participate in a similar experiment in the future. None of the groups was very enthusiastic about doing so, but the $1 group was significantly more willing to do so that the other two groups. On a scale of -5 to +5, the $1 group averaged +1.2, while the control and $20 groups averaged -0.62 and -.025 respectively. Again, an outlier or two in the $1 group might be the main reason for the difference in averages. Or there might be some other reason. With such a small sample, it would seem reasonable to suspect that there might be some other difference between the $1 group and the others that has nothing to do with cognitive dissonance. In any case, even if this study were redone with the same results using 600 subjects, I would still question whether the differences should be explained by cognitive dissonance. Paying people a little bit of money to do a trivial task and then lie about it to someone else might not require any justification in the context of a psychology experiment at Stanford University. After all, it's just an experiment. Paying people a lot of money may have created less incentive by making the task less enjoyable. A token payment may have created the illusion that the subjects were making an important contribution to science.*

See also affect bias, availability error, representativeness error, true believer syndrome, hidden persuaders, and SD Newsletter 13.7 (July 2014)..

further reading

reader comments

Ariely, Dan. (2008). Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. HarperCollins.

Festinger, Leon. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford University Press 1957).

Festinger Leon. When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study (Harpercollins 1964). (Originally published in 1956 by the University of Minnesota Press.)

Gardner, Daniel. 2008. The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger. Dutton.

Gilovich, Thomas. 1993. How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. Free Press.

Gilovich, Thomas. Dale Griffin and Daniel Kahneman. 2002. eds. Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment. Cambridge University Press.

Groopman, Jerome. M.D. 2007. How Doctors Think. Houghton Mifflin. My review of this book is here.

Harmon-Jones, Eddie and Judson Mills, editors. Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology (American Psychological Association 1999).

Hyman, Ray. "The Mischief-Making of Ideomotor Action," in the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine 3(2):34-43, 1999. Originally published as "How People Are Fooled by Ideomotor Action."

Kahneman, Daniel. Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky. eds. 1982. Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases Cambridge University Press.

Kida, Thomas. 2006. Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking. Prometheus.

Levine, Robert. The Power of Persuasion - How We're Bought and Sold  (John Wiley & Sons 2003).

Sutherland, Stuart. 1992. rev. 2nd ed. Irrationality. Pinter and Martin.

Last updated 12-Sep-2014

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