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reader comments: cognitive dissonance

Hi Mr. Carroll,

First let me say that I appreciate what you do on your web site. I think it’s important work.

I just wanted to comment on your post about cognitive dissonance. I’m not sure your conclusion is warranted that cognitive dissonance is illusory or not particularly useful as an explanation. (If I’ve misunderstood you, then I apologize.) For one thing, it seems to me that the examples you cite seem to fall within the three ways to deal with cognitive dissonance you quote from Festinger. For instance, the proponent of applied kinesiology avoided cognitive dissonance by rejecting the validity of double-blind testing, rather than abandon his nonsense beliefs. Quoting from your web page on the subject:

“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 rationalization, self-deception, irrational faith, confirmation bias, overestimation of one's intelligence and abilities, and the like? I don't think so.”

reply: What Festinger cites as three ways of dealing with cognitive dissonance, I would say are just three ways of dealing with data that conflicts with your beliefs. What evidence is there that the chiropractor, who is as devoted to his belief in applied kinesiology as any devout Mexican lady is to Our Lady of Guadalupe, is made uncomfortable by the failure of his beloved AK to pass a double-blind randomized trial? Festinger's own paradigm case, Marian Keech, showed no discomfort or uneasiness when the aliens failed to arrive as she had predicted. Irrational faith is an interesting topic, but I don't think the concept of cognitive dissonance adds anything interesting to the mix.

I don’t think cognitive dissonance is meant as an explanation of how people arrive at the wrong conclusions.

reply: Neither do I.

I think it’s meant to explain why people either go to the trouble of defending nonsensical beliefs or decide to switch beliefs. In other words, cognitive dissonance is part of what motivates people to engage in self-deception, irrational faith, confirmation bias, etc. Those are merely tactics to engage when you don’t want to admit you’re wrong. Persons inclined to be more honest with themselves will be guided by their cognitive dissonance to get at the truth, subject to their ability to think critically.

reply: The question is, does cognitive dissonance explain why people defend nonsensical beliefs? I see no reason to bring the concept in to explain why people change their minds when the evidence warrants it. There may be many motives a person could have for wanting to get things correct, but relieving cognitive dissonance would be at the bottom of the list in my opinion. People who would defend nonsense don't think of their beliefs as nonsense. The chiropractor who rejects controlled studies thinks he is being sensible. The homeopaths who reject randomized trials when the evidence goes against their beliefs think they are justified in doing so because of their understanding of the nature of homeopathy. The woman who thinks Our Lady of Guadalupe cured her infection and that the medicine she was taking was ineffective doesn't think she's being unreasonable.

I think of cognitive dissonance as that uncomfortable feeling you get when something is nagging at you about a situation you thought you had all figured out. It’s that little voice that says, “Really? I thought I knew what was going on here, but now I’m not so sure. Something here doesn’t add up.” Both critical thinkers and uncritical thinkers are driven by this. Critical thinkers tend to follow evidence and reason to the best answer. Uncritical thinkers are (mis)guided by faith and preconceptions, and perhaps a lack of appreciation for the successful historical track record of the methods of critical thinking.

reply: The feeling you are describing seems indistinguishable from the feeling one gets when one is afraid one has made the wrong decision. I don't want to make the right decision in order to relieve cognitive dissonance. I want to make the right decision so I don't have to deal with the consequences of a bad decision.

I think you’re right that some people honestly simply don’t feel cognitive dissonance about things that we think they should. Why they don’t is an excellent thing to examine. I’d guess that some people don’t because they’re just not smart enough to notice the contradictions in their beliefs. Some people are not educated enough in how logic works and how logic can go off the rails. Others are simply delusional or apathetic. Faith colors all of this, as does the emotional need to be right. People heavily invested emotionally, professionally, academically, or otherwise have a tendency to defend their conclusions.

Like everything else, cognitive dissonance is a capacity that varies from person to person. I know that my rejection of my religious upbringing was driven in large part by the nagging sensation that things just didn’t fit together the way I had been told. But I had to learn a lot about the rules of reason before I could really be confident in my critical thinking and come to the firm conclusion that the supernatural was nonsense.

Now, it may well be true that the theory of cognitive dissonance isn’t particularly useful in providing predictions about which beliefs will win out in any given contradiction, but I think it is a compelling explanation of the motivation to pick a winner, even if the wrong winner is selected. It’s an itch that even cultists scratch. One’s intelligence and education, particularly in the tools of critical thinking, determine whether reality or fantasy prevails. But even creationists feel the need to “explain” the fossil record.

reply: I've come to accept as a fact that intelligence and education aren't very good predictors when trying to handicap a bet on winners and losers in the horse race to the truth. Fantasy, confabulation, zealotry and the like are more likely driven by hormonal, neurochemical, and other biological factors than by environmental factors such as education and training in critical thinking.

As to the well-documented human capacity to compartmentalize, I’m not so sure that’s all that closely related to cognitive dissonance. I’m personally quite certain that the only logical conclusion is atheism, but many scientists are capable of applying the rules of evidence and logic in their research domains, yet never bother to examine the god question, perhaps because they don’t think it is tractable to the same tools of inquiry. If they don’t consider the question, cognitive dissonance need not arise. If they don’t extend the rules of evidence and logic to a particular area, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t suffer from cognitive dissonance if they did. They may simply not be inclined to look into it too deeply. Or perhaps some subconscious cognitive dissonance cuts them off at the pass, dissuading them from confronting themselves.

Anyway, since your page on cognitive dissonance doesn’t address the “nagging little voice” that I have seen at work in my own mind and on countless detective shows on TV, I offer it as something for you to ponder.


Jason Spicer

Washougal, WA

reply: Thanks for expressing your thoughts on the subject. I was driven to reject the importance of the concept of cognitive dissonance after hearing Carol Tavris defend the concept in an interview with D. J. Grothe. Her entire argument about cognitive dissonance seems vacuous and little more than piffle.

Everything she says can be fully explained without any reference to cognitive dissonance. Take her example of the smoker who knows it's unhealthy. Why assume such a person is made uncomfortable by behaving in an unhealthy way? Or why assume that people admit they were wrong or acted badly in order to avoid feeling uncomfortable? Or that those who don't admit they were wrong or acted badly rationalize in order to avoid cognitive dissonance? Guilt, shame, and other emotions as motivators seem sufficient to do the job of explaining most of the behavior she explains by reference to relieving cognitive dissonance. If ever a concept seemed to beg the question, it is this one. Just because a person feels better after doing something doesn't mean that the motive for doing it was to feel better.

To summarize: Festinger introduced the concept of cognitive dissonance to explain the behavior of people like Marian Keech and her followers. She claimed to get messages from extraterrestrials, known as The Guardians, through automatic writing. Keech and her small band of eleven disciples were waiting to be picked up by flying saucers. She had prophesized that the group would be saved just before Earth was to be destroyed by a massive flood on December 21, 1954. The prophecy was wrong, of course, but Keech then claimed that she'd 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. Only two members left the cult when the world didn't end. Those who remained became even more devoted to her. Festinger seems to have assumed Keech was rational and that she was made uncomfortable by being wrong, as any rational person would be, so she drummed up the story about their faith saving the world to save face and relieve her discomfort. I think this is a bad example because there's no evidence Keech or any of her followers experienced any mental discomfort by her failed prophecy. Two of her merry band quit, but why assume they quit to relieve any mental discomfort? Maybe they quit because they realized they'd been duped.

Maybe Keech really did get messages from aliens and maybe they really did communicate with her telepathically. My guess is that she was delusional and felt no special mental discomfort by her failure that had to be relieved by either admitting she was wrong or coming up with a rationalization that fit with the appearances even though it was farfetched and implausible.

On the other hand, there are many situations where people feel mental discomfort, e.g., when caught lying or in any wrongdoing, when ashamed or embarrassed, etc. And there are many situations where people behave in irrational or inconsistent ways: they don't practice what they preach or they act against their own interests. All the examples I've seen of cognitive dissonance seem to me to be explicable without recourse to that notion. I make up a story when caught lying because I'm embarrassed, not because the story relieves mental discomfort. It may do that or it may not, depending on how successful my story is. I do it because I know that people don't like liars and I want to be liked.

I don't think we really understand why some people change their minds when the facts change, while others dig in deeper and attack the source of the facts, their reliability, etc., rather than admit they were wrong. To say that both are relieving cognitive dissonance says nothing of interest, in my opinion.

I'll end with an example of what defenders of the utility of the concept of cognitive dissonance might see as a paradigm case. A few years ago, I referred to the creators of South Park as "vulgar misogynists." I haven't watched the show for several years, but I think I was reacting to several shows I'd seen in succession (re-runs of old shows were running on one channel, and new shows on another) that struck me as vilifying women for their looks or biological functions. I admit I did not do extensive research and was just popping off, vilifying these guys as casually as they vilify celebrities. Recently, a reader challenged me to defend the claim. I couldn't. Well, the 'vulgar' description needs no defense, but the charge of misogyny does. I tried to remember the shows that had irritated me enough to make such a comment, but the evidence was pretty slim, I had to admit. I also admit that I felt some mental discomfort at realizing I'd made a charge that I couldn't make stick (unless, of course, it's true and I did the proper research to justify it, something I'm not interested in doing). The proper thing to do, at that point, was to remove the description of Stone and Parker as misogynists. I did and I admit that the mental discomfort that arose when confronted with an argument that I couldn't refute disappeared. This could be an example of cognitive dissonance, except that I don't see how introducing that term adds anything interesting to the discussion. I don't like to be wrong and it irritates me when I find out, either on my own or when someone else shows me the error of my ways. Now, I could be wrong about being wrong. Maybe Stone and Parker are misogynists, but I don't have the evidence to prove it and I'm not interested in watching more South Park episodes to try to find confirming instances of my claim. I withdraw the claim and admit that I was hasty in making it. What would be interesting would be to understand why some people when so challenged would spend months or years seeking out proof that they were right rather than admit they weren't justified in making the claim in the first place. To say both the one who admits he was wrong and the one who doesn't is driven by a desire to relieve cognitive dissonance doesn't illuminate anything for me. Sorry.

cognitive dissonance


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Last updated 12/09/10


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