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Cognitive Dissonance: Stop Lying to Yourself

Funnel and Leaves

"Don't keep others guessing as to whether you tell the truth or not" courtesy of Brianna

'Tis not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.'

So said Charles Darwin.

So you've sold your home, quit your job, shunned your colleagues, abandoned your friends and family. The end of the world is nigh, and you 'know for a fact' that you are one of the chosen few who will be swept up from the 'great flood' approaching on 21st December at midnight to be flown to safety on a far off planet.

And then midnight on 21st December comes around and there is no flood. No end of the world. No flying saucer to the rescue. No nothing (to use a double negative).

What do you do? Admit you were wrong? Acknowledge that you gave up position, money, friends - for nothing? Tell yourself and others you have been a schmuck?

Not on your life.

Leon Festinger: On being stood up by the aliens

Social psychologist Leon Festinger infiltrated a flying saucer doomsday cult in the late 1950s. The members of this cult had given up everything on the premise that the world was about to self destruct and that they, because of their faith, would be the sole survivors. In the lead up to the fateful day, the cult shunned publicity and shied away from journalists. Festinger posed as a cultist and was present when the space ship failed to show up. He was curious about what would happen. How would the disappointed cultists react to the failure of their prophecy? Would they be embarrassed and humiliated? What actually happened amazed him.

Cognitive dissonance: Who are you kidding?

Now, after the non-event, the cultists suddenly wanted publicity. They wanted media attention and coverage. Why? So they could explain how their faith and obedience had helped save the planet from the flood. The aliens had spared planet earth for their sake - and now their new role was to spread the word and make us all listen. This fascinated Festinger. He observed that the real driving force behind the cultists' apparently inexplicable response was the need, not to face the awkward and uncomfortable truth and 'change their minds', but rather to 'make minds comfortable' - to smooth over the unacceptable inconsistencies.

You can't handle the truth!

Festinger coined the term 'cognitive dissonance' to describe the uncomfortable tension we feel when we experience conflicting thoughts or beliefs (cognitions), or engage in behavior that is apparently opposed to our stated beliefs. What is particularly interesting is the lengths to which people will go to reduce the inner tension without accepting that they might, in fact, be wrong. They will accept almost any form of relief, other than admitting being at fault, or mistaken.

If a person believes, for example, that they are not racist, but then discriminates against someone on the basis of race, this faces them with the discomfort of acknowledging that they are racist after all. In an attempt to escape this discomfort, they will seek to rationalize (explain away) their behavior on some other grounds, which may be spurious, but which allow them to hold on to their otherwise discredited belief.

Festinger quickly realized that our intolerance for 'cognitive dissonance' could explain many mysteries of human behavior.

How many dollars would you take to tell a lie?

In a fascinating experiment Festinger and his colleagues paid some subjects twenty dollars to tell a specific lie, while they paid another group of subjects only one dollar to do the same. Those who were paid just one dollar were far more likely to claim, after the event, that they had actually believed in the lie they were told to tell. Why? Well, because it's just so much harder to justify having done something that conflicts with your own sense of being 'an honest person' for a mere pittance. If you get more money, you can tell yourself: 'Yeah, I lied, but I got well paid! It was justified.' But for one dollar? That's not a good enough reason to lie, so what you were saying must have been true in the first place, right? Amazingly, this style of cognitive dissonance (what you might call the 'not worth the candle' dissonance) was the very type instigated and manipulated by the Chinese during the Korean war to re-engineer the beliefs of their American prisoners of war - what came to be known as 'brainwashing.'

I must believe this; else I wouldn't do it!

Of course, there are other ways to induce and shape beliefs - fear and reward, for example - but the Chinese captors during the Korean conflict worked on their prisoners more subtly (at least some of the time) by taking advantage of these cognitive dissonance effects. Some US captives were offered extra rice or candies for writing anti-American pro-Chinese essays. Some of these soldiers actually subsequently converted to communism. This seems to be exactly the same mechanism as the one dollar 'liars' coming to believe that they hadn't, in fact, told a lie. No one wants to believe they 'sold out' for a bowl of rice, a dollar or some candy. The Chinese seemed to instinctively know how cognitive dissonance works and how to use it to mold beliefs.

This is not to say that everybody will experience cognitive dissonance in every circumstance, but it does seem to happen more than we are aware. And, what is worse, it seems our brains reward us - rather like a drug addict getting their fix - when we rationalize away any information we 'don't want to hear'. We feel really good when we have successfully convinced ourselves that 'it ain't so!'.

Dishonest politicians! Never!

Emotional factors influence how we vote for our politicians much more than our careful and logical appraisal of their policies, according to Drew Westen, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Emory University in Atlanta and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. This may come as little surprise to you, but what about when we learn that our favored politician may be dishonest? Do we take the trouble to really find out what they are supposed to have done, and so possibly have to change our opinions (and our vote), or do we experience that nasty cognitive dissonance and so seek to keep our minds comfortable at the possible cost of truth?

Addicted to self deceit

Westen and colleagues conducted a study using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on the brains of staunch Democrats and staunch Republicans in the USA. The MRIs showed that the emotional areas of participants' brains lit up when they read articles suggesting their favored politician was dishonest. So far, so much what you would expect. But get this!

There was a decrease in activity in the parts of the brain that deal with reasoning when they read this damning information. So part of reducing the discomfort of cognitive dissonance may be to think less. This makes sense. The flying saucer cultists, when confronted with their unfulfilled doomsday prophecy, didn't think their way out of their dilemma, they felt their way out of it, and based their decisions on emotion.

The researchers in Westen's study found that all the participants appeared to find ways of ignoring any negative information relating to their favored politician, thus allowing themselves to hold on to their previous beliefs. When their emotional response eventually overcame the reasoning, it stimulated the brain's reward system - similar to what happens to drug addicts when they get their fix. Nobody said that a sincere search for truth would be comfortable!

Get real: Do you suffer from cognitive dissonance?

But I am not like that! I hear you cry. Well, maybe not, but remember cognitive dissonance is unconscious. You don't consciously notice that there is a discrepancy It all happens out of awareness. But the discomfort still drives you inexorably to seek relief. That's how it works.

We often assume from our incessant information gathering and analysis that human beings are truth-seeking creatures, but much evidence indicates that maintaining our emotional stability is much more important to us than sharpening up our perceptions of reality. 'It may be true - but I don't believe it!' Especially when it comes to our romantic partners, as it happens.

Much better than my ex

We like to think our lives are improving and we are making good decisions. After all, who wants to think: 'You are worse than my last boyfriend or... about the same.' It's more comfortable to justify our choices with 'reasons'. If we have chosen to be with someone new, then it would make sense to feel that this person has many positive qualities lacking in previous partners - after all we are with them, aren't we? We want to be happy with our decision.

Research shows, not surprisingly, that we tend to romanticize our current partners at the expense of our exes. A team of researchers, led by psychologist Glenn Geher of the State University of New York at New Paltz, found that most people rated their current partners as 'much better' than their exes, regardless of how partners might actually stack up against one another. This, of course, was especially true of partners who were happy in their new relationship. They just had to believe this new person was actually superior. (Hmm… makes me wonder what my ex-partners may be saying about me now to their current partners... best not go there, as they say...)

Cognitive dissonance all around... help!

If we experience cognitive dissonance over some issue, we seek to escape it in myriad ways. We believe things (or not) because to think otherwise may be too emotionally de-stabilizing. It's easier to make up reasons in your head why that report really can wait until tomorrow - why, in fact, it may be better to make a fresh start in the morning, why you should continue dating that lunatic rather than have to admit you might have been lazy or misguided. The conscious mind is employed by the unconscious mind to justify our behavior, so that our self-concepts don't have to change too radically. No one likes to be wrong.

How many people justify smoking to themselves, or never visiting an elderly relative, or any number of good things left undone, or bad things committed? Having a rationale makes what you want to do seem the right thing to do - even if it really isn't.

The cognitive dissonance dilemma: minds must be made comfortable

So what are we to make of all this? How are we to uncover truth when it seems that people who genuinely believe they are being honest are really deceiving themselves? When one part of the mind doesn't know what the other is doing? What's more, the 'self-esteem industry' may have actually encouraged our already strong natural propensity to seek relief from cognitive dissonance through rationalization. If the main imperative is to feel good about yourself at all costs (because you are 'worth it'), any behavior which indicates your character really could do with a bit more work would be likely to rouse intolerable tension - and you would be that much keener to justify yourself rather than deal with it.

I really think we need to be braver, and willing to face what are sometimes uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our behavior.

It's not just about thinking well of yourself

Interestingly, self justifications don't always have to put us in a positive light - just a consistent one. People with low self-esteem will be uncomfortable with evidence that puts them in a better light, and therefore cling to low self-evaluations by explaining away their successes.

Self indulgence or 'spirituality'?

Some people may lack the self-knowledge or objectivity to know when they are being cowardly, lazy, cruel, or attention-seeking at the expense of others. But these self-same people may believe that they are 'working on themselves' by burning incense, using the word 'spiritual' a lot, or doing all manner of things they have been conditioned to believe have to do with self-improvement. Being an official man or woman 'of the cloth' may or may not be synonymous with being 'a good person'. A superficial spirituality is readily constructed from the outward forms of special modes of dress, distinctive jargon and ritual behaviors, and makes an excellent - and even outwardly convincing - relief valve and camouflage for any cognitive dissonance arising from a mismatch between behaviors and beliefs. In this way an entire 'identity' can become a form of rationalizing away bad behavior.

The high cost of commitment exposes us to cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is essentially a matter of commitment to the choices one has made, and the ongoing need to satisfactorily justify that commitment, even in the face of convincing but conflicting evidence. This is why it can take a long time to leave a cult or an abusive relationship - or even to stop smoking. Life's commitments, whether to a job, a social cause, or a romantic partner, require heavy emotional investment, and so carry significant emotional risks. In a way, it makes sense that our brains should be hard-wired for monitoring and justifying our choices and actions - so as to avoid too much truth breaking in at once and overwhelming us. This is why we send good money after bad when a financial decision seems to be back-firing, or clutch at the straws of a fading relationship, or 'send more troops' into ill-advised military adventures.

Grow up - make cognitive dissonance work for you

I guess we can't really develop unless we start to get a grip and have some personal honesty about what really motivates us. This is part of genuine maturity. If I know I am being lazy, and can admit it to myself, that at least is a first step to correcting it. If, however, I tell myself it's more sensible to wait before vacuuming, then I can go around with a comfortable self-concept of 'being sensible' while my filthy carpets and laziness remain unchanged.

Cognitive dissonance can actually help me mature, if I can bring myself, first, to notice it (making it conscious) and second, to be more open to the message it brings me, in spite of the discomfort. As dissonance increases, providing I do not run away into self-justification, I can get a clearer and clearer sense of what has changed, and what I need to do about it.

And then I can remember what Darwin had to say about who will survive...

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