Cognitive Dissonance

As skeptics, it is baffling to us that people can believe in so many different things that have little or no evidence to support them and often have plenty of evidence against them.  We tend to look at these people as cranks, kooks, or loonies.  There is a tendency to ridicule and make fun of these people and sometimes this is an appropriate response, but we need to remember what Leon Festinger had to say in his book, When Prophecy Fails:

“…through the mocking and scoffing of nonbelievers there is usually established a heavy commitment on the part of believers. …the jeering of nonbelievers simply makes it far more difficult for the adherents to withdraw from the movement and admit that they were wrong.

The reality is that most of these believers are suffering from cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a theory first proposed by Leon Festinger in the 1950’s.  He theorized that when an individual holds two or more ideas that are related but inconsistent with each another the inconsistency creates a state of discomfort. (Harmon-Jones, E. and Harmon-Jones, C. 2007)

He tested his theory by studying a UFO cult that believed that there would be a great flood on December 21, 1954, and that a flying saucer would save them.  When December 21 passed with no flood and no flying saucer, the members of the group became even more dedicated to their beliefs.  This is because most of them had given away everything they owned and had given up everything to their belief in the prophecy.  They told themselves that their sincere commitment stopped the flood from happening, and that this belief proved that they were right. (Festinger, et al. 1956)

Cognitive dissonance is something that most of us have experienced to one degree or another.. Most of the time the dissonance is easily and painlessly resolved simply by making a decision. For example, say you know that you need complete a project deadline by the day after tomorrow and you have planned on completing it today, but then you get a call from a friend asking you to go out for lunch and shopping.  You feel uneasy because you know you need to get the project done.  If you decide to work on the project instead of go with your friend, you have resolved the dissonance and the unease is gone now that you know you will complete your project today.  If, on the other hand, you decide to go with your friend, the dissonance remains.  You justify your decision by telling yourself that you have all day tomorrow to complete the project.  In this case you haven’t really resolved the dissonance, but you have rationalized it to yourself effectively enough so that you are able to go out and enjoy your time with your friend, even if the dissonance may be nagging at you in the back of your mind.

We deal with situations like this all the time. The vast majority of times, we resolve it by making a decision that makes the dissonance go away. Sometimes, we choose to let the dissonance remain and we rationalize it away in order to allow ourselves to function without the emotional discomfort.

A fairly innocuous example of cognitive dissonance is the story of The Fox and the Grapes. The fox wants to eat the high hanging grapes, but unable to reach them, he convinces himself that he didn’t really want the grapes anyway because they were probably sour.

A more serious example might be a doctor whose patient dies in her care because of a mistake the doctor made.  She then denies that she made a mistake despite the clear evidence that she did She then comes up with several rationalizations to explain why the patient’s death wasn’t her fault.

Most of us would look at the doctor and say that she was wrong and should own up to it. We perceive her as being dishonest and uncaring.

What is really going on is more complex than that. The doctor most likely is a very honest and caring person and sees herself as such. Because being honest and caring is an essential part of how she sees herself, there is great cognitive dissonance introduced by the death of her patient due to  her error..

She has a difficult choice to make: either face the very uncomfortable fact that she was responsible for the death of her patient, or find reasons why it wasn’t her fault. While facing the facts is obviously the right thing to do, it will seriously call into question a very fundamental aspect of who she is. In order to live with herself she chooses, somewhat unconsciously, to find other reasons for the patient’s death.

Another example is one that we hear about far too often.  Someone is told that they have cancer and that a difficult regime of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery is required to remove it, but they fear these treatments and the possibility of death so much that cognitive dissonance is created in their minds.  This may cause them to latch onto alternative treatments that are untested and unsafe.  This is all too common and the results are usually deadly. Real, effective treatment is postponed in favor of alternatives such as homeopathy or naturopathy, so that, by the time they realize the alternative treatments aren’t working, it is too late.

It is important for all of us to understand Cognitive dissonance because it is very easy for us, when faced with cognitive dissonance in our own lives, to choose the easiest way to deal with it.  Most of the time the results are insignificant, but as the example above illustrates, the results can also be deadly.

Resources: Festinger, L., Riecken, H.W., Schachter, S. , Aronson, E. 1956. When prophecy fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Harmon-Jones, E. , Harmon-Jones, C. 2007. Cognitive dissonance theory after 50 years of development. Zeitschrift fur Sozialpsychologie (38): 7-16.

Jay Walker is a skeptical writer whose work has been published in AIM Magazine and various local newspapers. He is also the author of the Freethinking For Dummies blog at and is a regular contributor to the blog at Jay is also an organizing member on the Conference Committee for the Omaha Atheists.

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