Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance

What's Cognitive Dissonance?


Cognitive Dissonance is the confused feeling we get when a narcissist says one thing and does another. Which one is real? The narcissist's image created from professed beliefs and values; or their behavior? Stuck between two truths, we dismiss conflicting evidence until we feel comfortable with our belief. Consider the Pillar of the Community narcissist. She inspires community spirit with inspirational speeches lighting people's hearts on fire. Then one day she's in a car crash and the local police discover fourteen dead bodies stacked neatly in her trunk. What's the first thing people say when confronted with conflicting truths?  "She may have killed fourteen people but I know she's a nice person. She brought us chicken soup one year. At least, it tasted like chicken."
Do nice people store bodies in the trunk of their car while organizing the neighborhood barbecue? It is not easy believing what you see when you don't want to see what you're seeing. Ya see what I mean? Cognitive Dissonance is the brain pain resulting from two conflicting thoughts or beliefs. One of them has to go to stop our misery because human beings do not like dissonance cognitions. We seek consonance...unconsciously
Consider the woman who is married to an irresponsible man who appeared to be the perfect partner for a lifelong relationship. Any relationship considered to be trustworthy enough to last, requires responsibility on both people's part. She's committed. She has invested years of her life in his reciprocal commitment and yet, now and then he does peculiar things that leave her confused. She chooses to believe he is trustworthy despite evidence to the contrary and as a result, emphasizes his positive qualities while minimizing, rationalizing, even denying his worst. 
A wonderful book about cognitive dissonance was written by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aaronson, titled Mistakes Were Made but Not By Me. You can find it in our bookstore link at the top of the page; or, borrow it from your community library. It's a fantastic read about normal behavior! Remember: the more you understand your own psyche, the safer you'll be. Familiarize yourself with the ways people fall prey to manipulators. You can protect yourself if you are willing to examine all evidence contradicting your preferred beliefs. 
One more story about our 'normal' resistance to changing our beliefs. Researchers divided two groups of people according to their political beliefs. They subsequently presented contradictory information discrediting the preferred candidate of each group. Even with indisputable evidence, group members did NOT change their initial beliefs about that person. So the next time someone does something contradictory to their persona, (either the person they profess to be, or the person you believe them to be), I hope your hard-WoN lessons about cognitive dissonance will serve you well! Allow other people to SHOW you who they are by their actions. Believe actions more than words and you'll avoid a lot of heartache in the future.

"We must always hold truth, as we can best determine it, to be more important, more vital to our self-interest than our comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant, and indeed, even welcome it in the service for truth. "Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs."  ~M. Scott Peck 



Cognitive Dissonance
(inactive link)
"This is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.
Dissonance increases with:
  • The importance of the subject to us.
  • How strongly the dissonant thoughts conflict.
  • Our inability to rationalize and explain away the conflict.
Dissonance is often strong when we believe something about ourselves and then do something against that belief. If I believe I am good but do something bad, then the discomfort I feel as a result is cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful motivator which will often lead us to change one or other of the conflicting belief or action. The discomfort often feels like a tension between the two opposing thoughts. To release the tension we can take one of three actions:
  • Change our behavior.
  • Justify our behavior by changing the conflicting cognition.
  • Justify our behavior by adding new cognitions.
Dissonance is most powerful when it is about our self-image. Feelings of foolishness, immorality and so on (including internal projections during decision-making) are dissonance in action.

If an action has been completed and cannot be undone, then the after-the-fact dissonance compels us to change our beliefs. If beliefs are moved, then the dissonance appears during decision-making, forcing us to take actions we would not have taken before.

Cognitive dissonance appears in virtually all evaluations and decisions and is the central mechanism by which we experience new differences in the world. When we see other people behave differently to our images of them, when we hold any conflicting thoughts, we experience dissonance.

Dissonance increases with the importance and impact of the decision, along with the difficulty of reversing it. Discomfort about making the wrong choice of car is bigger than when choosing a lamp..."

Go Ahead, Rationalize. Monkeys Do It, Too.

By John Tierney
"Once a monkey was observed to show an equal preference for three colors of M&M’s — say, red, blue and green — he was given a choice between two of them. If he chose red over blue, his preference changed and he downgraded blue. When he was subsequently given a choice between blue and green, it was no longer an even contest — he was now much more likely to reject the blue.

"The monkey seemed to be coping the same way humans do. When you reject the toaster, you could spend a lot of time second-guessing yourself, and that phenomenon, much less common, is called buyer’s remorse. (For more on that, go to But in general, people deal with cognitive dissonance — the clashing of conflicting thoughts — by eliminating one of the thoughts. The notion that the toaster is desirable conflicts with the knowledge that you just passed it up, so you banish the notion. The cognitive dissonance is gone; you are smug." 

“A powerful cause of dissonance is an idea in conflict with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as "I am a good person" or "I made the right decision." The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization, the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one's choices. A person who just spent too much money on a new car might decide that the new vehicle is much less likely to break down than his or her old car. This belief may or may not be true, but it would likely reduce dissonance and make the person feel better. Dissonance can also lead to confirmation bias, the denial of disconfirming evidence, and other ego defense mechanisms."

Fighting Cognitive Dissonance & The Lies We Tell Ourselves

By John M. Grohol
“Self-awareness seems to be a key to understanding how and when cognitive dissonance may play a role in your life. If you find yourself justifying or rationalizing decisions or behaviors that you’re not quite clear you firmly believe in, that might be a sign that cognitive dissonance is at work. If your explanation for something is, “Well, that’s the way I’ve always done it or thought about it,” that may also be a sign. Socrates extolled that “An unexamined life is not worth living.” In other words, challenge and be skeptical of such answers if you find yourself falling back on them.”

Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance
by Leon Festinger & James M. Carlsmith (1959)
"What happens to a person's private opinion if he is forced to do or say something contrary to that opinion? Only recently has there been any experimental work related to this question. Two studies reported by Janis and King (1954; 1956) clearly showed that, at least under some conditions, the private opinion changes so as to bring it into closer correspondence with the overt behavior the person was forced to perform. Specifically, they showed that if a person is forced to improvise a speech supporting a point of view with which he disagrees, his private opinion moves toward the position advocated in the speech. The observed opinion change is greater than for persons who only hear the speech or for persons who read a prepared speech with emphasis solely on execution and manner of delivery The authors of these two studies explain their results mainly in terms of mental rehearsal and thinking up new arguments. In this way, they propose, the person who is forced to improvise a speech convinces himself. They present some evidence, which is not altogether conclusive, in support of this explanation. We will have more to say concerning this explanation in discussing the results of our experiment..."

by Phil Barker

“In spite of people's desire to avoid it, the proper use of cognitive dissonance can be a useful tool in overcoming conflict. Cognitive dissonance is a basic tool for education in general. Creating dissonance can induce behavior or attitude change. By creating cognitive dissonance, you force people to react. In other words, a child can be encouraged to learn by creating dissonance between what they think they know and what they actually do -- drawing attention to the fact that they know stealing is wrong even though they took a cookie, etc. The same idea can be used in adults. By introducing cognitive dissonance (pointing out the conflict between what people know and do), we can encourage a change in thought or action.”

“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.

A valuable contribution to understanding cognitive dissonance:
"Non-PD's may also experience cognitive dissonance when they discover that their own reactions or responses to challenging behavior on the part of a family member do not reveal their best side. They may display occasional angry outbursts, actions of deception or retribution, such as violence, shouting, name calling, sabotage, affairs, gossip and slander. Following such actions they may feel shame, they may feel worthless, powerless or a sense of failure. They may feel regret that they have handed justification for bad behavior to the abusive person in their home or they may even blame themselves for contributing to the abuse and dysfunction in the home."

by Barbara Stuart
"Tension can also be reduced if the individual accepts a situation over which he has no control. For example, having to go to work even when there is snow on the ground. Additionally, forgiveness is also one other way for reducing tension. The example here is the story of Joseph and his brothers Although they had wronged him, he was willing to forgo his hurts and forgave them the wrong that was done to him. The example of Joseph shows that by choosing to do right, whatever the price to him, he was able to reduce the tension by himself without the aid of another person. His knowledge of right and wrong and what is acceptable assisted him in altering dissonant behavior or confused distorted thoughts."


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