Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Technical Summary of Cognitive Dissonance

Given the continued political craziness that seems to be never ending, I thought that people might be interested in reading a technical summary of cognitive dissonance theory. This is a section of a paper I wrote (that I'm going to send to a journal someday, I swear) entitled "Cognitive Dissonance, Envy, and the Psychological Roots of Anti-Liberalism." A few of the professors who have been kind enough to read drafts of my paper have given me feedback that this section is very solid, hence, I am not reticent to put it out there. Hopefully it gives some people some food for thought and self-reflection, and as always I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

The citations refer to:

Festinger, Leon. 
A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1962. Print.
Tavris, Carol, and Elliot Aronson. 
Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me). Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2007. Epub.

Cognitive Dissonance
            Cognitive dissonance is defined as “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent.”[1] There are numerous ways this phenomenon manifests itself throughout one’s daily life, in the beliefs they hold and the actions they take. However, a state of dissonance creates psychological discomfort and a person experiencing it must attempt to deal with it in some way. Leon Festinger, who wrote A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, one of the earliest works on cognitive dissonance described two basic human reactions to cognitive dissonance. “The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance” and secondly that “when dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will likely avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance.” The need to alleviate cognitive dissonance is no different than the need to alleviate hunger or any other such motivating factor. Therefore, “dissonance, that is the existence of non-fitting relations among cognitions, is a motivating factor in its own right” and cognition is “any knowledge, opinion, or belief about the environment, about oneself, or about one’s behavior.”[2] Simply put cognitive dissonance is therefore the motivation to reduce dissonance or in other words it “is about how people strive to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful.”[3]
            Festinger lists three ways in which it is possible for someone to reduce dissonance. These are to change one’s behavior, to change one’s environment, or to add new cognitive elements. Changing one’s behavior is among the simplest ways to reduce dissonance and entails reacting to new information about reality as it is perceived. Festinger’s usual example was smoking. If someone smoked and valued their health, they would experience dissonance upon learning that smoking was detrimental to one’s health. If the person chose to reduce dissonance by changing one’s behavior, they would simply cease to smoke therefore eliminating the dissonance caused by the contradiction between smoking and wanting to be healthy.[4]
            Changing one’s environment can be more difficult but is often a viable solution. Festinger notes that it is often easier to change one’s social environment than one’s physical environment. Whereas changing one’s behavior in response to dissonance caused by new information means acting upon the new cognition, changing one’s environment on the other hand, means modifying one’s surrounding circumstances so that one’s cognition is changed. The example of this response that Festinger uses is a person who is often hostile to people surrounding himself with people who often elicit hostile responses. This then means that his responses are not unwarranted and therefore he does not experience dissonance. It is important to note, however, that the ability for someone to change his or her environment, either social or physical, is often limited. Therefore, “some means of ignoring or counteracting the real situation must be used” in order to change one’s cognitive element without first changing reality. Festinger notes that at times this is impossible, using the example of someone standing in the rain being unable to alter the cognition that it is raining no matter “how strong the psychological pressures are to eliminate that cognition” and but that other times it can be easily achieved especially if a social pressure is present.[5]
            Finally, a person can introduce new cognitive elements that help to reduce the existing dissonance without eliminating it completely. This introduction can be done in several ways, one of which is by reducing the importance of existing dissonance. Festinger uses the example of a smoker reading literature that argues that smoking is not harmful or at least is not as harmful as other literature claims. Or he may compare the risks of smoking to one’s health to the risk of injury when traveling in a car and conclude that smoking is safer than driving in a car. Alternatively, it may be possible to reconcile two dissonance-causing cognitions. Festinger cites the example of the belief system of the Ifaluk society. It is a society-wide belief that people are good, yet children will exhibit violent tendencies. The Ifaluk reconcile this contradiction by introducing a new cognitive element, namely a claim that the children become possessed by “malevolent ghosts” that make the children to act violently.[6]
            Instead of eliminating or reducing dissonance it is also possible to avoid dissonance, or attempt to avoid dissonance, when attempting to form new cognitions. When seeking new information a person would tend to utilize only those sources of information, whether they be other people, books, or some other source, that would support the cognition in question and add to the person’s consonance.[7]
            When examining cognitive dissonance and its relevance to psychological causes for opposition to liberalism there are two factors as discussed by Festinger that must be discussed. These are the voluntary and involuntary exposure to data and the role of social support in changing one’s cognitions. Willingness to expose oneself to new information depends on whether or not the information is anticipated to create, or lessen dissonance and to what extent the magnitude of the dissonance has amassed. When there is very little or no dissonance, then factors other than whether or not the new information will cause dissonance will likely be the primary motivators. However, when dissonance is at moderate levels the person would likely take into consideration whether the new information will likely increase or decrease dissonance before deciding to expose themselves to it in order to strengthen consonance and reduce dissonance as much as possible. It is only when the magnitude of dissonance has built up enough to be close to surpassing the level of resistance to change that a person will likely expose themselves to dissonance increasing information. Once the level of dissonance has surpassed the level of resistance to change, then the person “will change the cognitive elements involved, thus markedly reducing or perhaps even wholly eliminating the dissonance which is now so great.”[8]
            According to Festinger, when a person is involuntarily exposed to dissonance causing information he can respond in three different ways. He may have an “initial understanding of the propaganda message followed by a circuitous line of reasoning which ends in misunderstanding.” This response means that a person experiencing dissonance from some new information would then attempt to separate his particular circumstance from the dissonance causing information and in the process come to understand the information in a way that does not cause dissonance. If the new information has been stated too clearly to permit misunderstanding then the person may simply dismiss the information, usually on a personal level, even while acknowledging its accuracy on a superficial level. Alternatively, a person may instead simply transform any new information so as to be compatible with his views and therefore not cause any more dissonance or in other words “issues presented in a frame of reference different from his own are transformed so as to become compatible with his own views.” Festinger speculates that people who have this reaction are likely to have already developed dissonance about whatever subject the new information is about and thus they would be more likely to have this instantaneous reaction as opposed to people who have the first two reactions who likely have not yet developed any significant dissonance about the subject of the new information.[9]
            As mentioned previously, positive social pressure can help to change or at least ignore certain cognitions and as it were help someone ignore reality. “The social group is at once a major source of cognitive dissonance for the individual and a major vehicle for eliminating and reducing the dissonance which may exist in him.”[10] In this context, however, the magnitude of the dissonance that arises when there is disagreement with others depends on two variables. The first is “the extent that objective, nonsocial, cognitive elements exist which are consonant with a given opinion, belief, or knowledge, the expression of disagreement will produce a lesser magnitude of dissonance.” So for instance if a person were to exclaim that it is a beautiful cloudless day and someone were to disagree and claim that it is grey and overcast, not very much dissonance if any at all would be created for the first person who is accurately ascertaining the reality of the weather. In contrast, it is noted that in situations where it is harder to ascertain the truth objectively (for instance the validity of a religion) then contrary views and opinions will lead to relatively more dissonance. The second variable is the number of people with whom one shares a belief or opinion. The more people who hold a belief in common with you, the greater the amount of consonance that is built up and the less dissonance that is encountered when there is a disagreement.[11]
            With these in mind Festinger lists three ways of reducing dissonance “stemming from social disagreement.” The first is to alter one’s own cognitions so that they are in alignment with the majority of other members of a social group. Festinger notes, however, that this only works if there is a clear majority and many people who hold the original cognition. The second way is by changing one’s social environment i.e., working to persuade other members of a social group to change their cognitions so they align with one’s own and thus removing the dissonance causing disagreement. Finally, dissonance can be reduced in a social setting if one is able to differentiate another person as not being “comparable to oneself.” The example Festinger uses is a person claiming the grass is green not experiencing dissonance when another person claims the grass is brown, because the first person is aware that the second person is colorblind.[12]
            Festinger notes a very important way in which the first way of reducing dissonance in a social setting can lead to a denial of reality. He uses an example of two people walking along when it starts to rain. Rather than acknowledging the rain, one of the people claims that it is not raining, but merely water blowing off the leaves of trees from a previous rain storm due to, for whatever reason, a strong dissonance with the cognition of it raining. If the other person was in tune with reality, they would likely reject this idea, however, if they were also experiencing strong dissonance then he would want to agree and deny that it is raining, and by doing so both people are able to reduce the dissonance created by denying that it is in fact raining. The more people who have a certain dissonance (in this case with rain) then the more people who will have an interest in denying reality in favor of the belief that water is blowing off of leaves and as a result will result in an easier process of denying that it is raining due to social reinforcement and the resulting decrease in dissonance. “If everyone believes it, it most certainly must be true.”[13]
            This phenomenon also leads to another observation of the importance of mass proselytizing. The more people who agree with one’s cognition, the easier it is to reduce any associated dissonance with said cognition. This phenomenon is especially applicable in cases where the dissonance causing information is particularly strong and cannot be modified and the only way to reduce the dissonance caused by the additional information is to introduce new cognitive elements that reduce dissonance as discussed above. One of the ways to do this is to strengthen consonance by surrounding oneself with other people equally interested in reducing dissonance. As a result mass proselytizing is incentivized in order to reinforce consonance and reduce dissonance. The more people who come to hold some belief, the greater the reduction of dissonance will be (although in cases involving the denial of reality it cannot be reduced completely).[14] 

[1] Tavris and Elliot, 21
[2] Festinger, 3
[3] Tavris and Elliot, 22
[4] Festinger, 19
[5] Ibid., 21 
[6] Ibid., 21-23 
[7] Ibid., 29-30
[8] Ibid., 126-130
[9] Ibid., 134-136
[10] Ibid., 177
[11] Ibid., 178-179
[12] Ibid., 181-182
[13] Ibid., 198-200
[14] Ibid., 200-202