What is cognitive dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance theory addresses the way people reconcile two apparently contradictory cognitions. It was developed by a group of psychologists led by Leon Fustinger, who studied a UFO cult in the 1950s. Disappointed that UFOs had not arrived, as the cult had publicly predicted they would, to carry off the cult members at an appointed time, the members of the group, supporting each other, made new public predictions that said the time was not quite right, and that their predictions had never been intended to predict an exact time and place. So confronted with facts that contradicted their beliefs, they simply invented a new reality. The book, and the theory, have been very influential in a number of areas, including psychology and memory studies in history.
Cognitive dissonance is a rather pervasive occurrence in which behavior conflicts with one's understanding of that behavior's implications. A common example is a smoker who continues to smoke cigarettes, even while knowing cigarettes are linked to cancer and other deadly diseases. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance developed by Leon Festinger in 1957, people struggle to maintain consistency in their beliefs and actions, and will rationalize and justify their behaviors that conflict with their beliefs or values to try and maintain some form of consistency. However, such efforts may prove impossible and result in cognitive dissonance. This dissonance can cause emotional discomfort, tension and mental distress.
Here are a couple of possible small-scale examples:
- A vegan, health conscious adult who values personal health above almost everything else also smokes a half-pack of cigarettes a day.
- The parent of a high school student decries the quality of education in the school but this parent does not pay property taxes on his house which would be used to fund the school and hire more teachers.
Perhaps these are simply contradictory positions but if the people in the examples really believe in both sides of the contradiction, we may have examples of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance describes the struggle between differing ideas held by the same person or group of persons. Probably the prime example from my own life is my struggle to reconcile my Christian beliefs and faith in what the Bible teaches me with how I would like to approach the topic of single-sex marriage. For me, the resolution of the cognitive dissonance has been to conclude that I, as a mere human, am to love all persons and support relationships that are loving and positive for those involved regardless of gender. I'll leave the ultimate judgement of right or wrong to God.
Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort caused between what you believe and what you do. This often causes when a person is forced by someone else, or society, to act in a way perceived as wrong. It can result also from conflicted emotions, such as when a person does not know what is right. People cannot survive long in dissonance. It tears them apart. So they eventually have to reconcile the two thoughts and choose one way or the other. Consider a German in Nazi Germany who does not want to follow the Nazis.
Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment.The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions or adding new ones to create a consistent belief system. An example of this would be the conflict between wanting to smoke and knowing that smoking is unhealthy; a person may try to change their feelings about the odds that they will actually suffer the consequences, or they might add the consonant element that the smoking is worth short term benefits.