Where did cognitive dissonance theory come from, and is it just more psychobabble? The answers: a wacky religion and a UFO cult … and no, it’s real science. (More)

Psychological basis for Cognitive Dissonance Theory

In this three-part series, we’re examining how cognitive dissonance can play a part in fueling and exacerbating our heated political landscape. Yesterday we looked at ignition: examples of contemporary conflagrations sparked by the psychological responses to dissonance predicted by cognitive dissonance theory. Tonight we’ll tamp down the flames with a wet blanket of scientific drivel: an overview of cognitive dissonance theory evolution and research.

Research in cognitive dissonance theory has a few distinct vectors. One common thread is that the most dramatic manifestations of irrational responses will be when the dissonance is between strongly held beliefs, often about the self, and thoughts that unequivocally contradict those beliefs.

The failed prophecy that launched a religion

In the mid-19th century, a large sect of “Second Great Awakening” Christians called Millerites believed their founder’s prophecy that the world would end sometime in 1844, when Jesus returned to redeem his true followers. Sect members were so sure of this prophecy they sold their possessions, bid farewell to nonbelievers and prepared for their new, non-material lives. Predictably, the rapture never came, and leaders scrambled to adjust the theology to save face, and followers.

For believers, this was their holy cognitive dissonance moment, known historically as “The Great Disappointment.” Facts undeniably contradicted belief. The rational response would be to at least believe less, if not abandon the beliefs and find something new to believe in. Many did, but several large sub-groups dealt with the dissonance by formulating new explanations for the discrepancies, and/or modifying the tenets of their belief system to accommodate inconvenient facts. (One of those groups eventually became Seventh Day Adventists.)

The wacky UFO cult that started a theory.

Over a century later, Β in 1954, a Stanford psychologist named Leon Festinger, while pursuing his ideas about cognitive dissonance, learned about a cult who fervently believed the world was about to be destroyed, and that the aliens who were warning them would also save them in their flying saucer. The aliens said that all humanity would drown in a flood on December 21, 1954.

Again, the believers went all in, abandoning all their possessions and connections to society. The cult was reclusive, suspicious of outsiders, and secretive. What would happen on December 22 when the world was still dry? How would they respond to their holy cognitive dissonance moment?

The rational prediction was that they would experience disappointment, depression, and literal disillusionment, and generally lose the fervor of their beliefs. Festinger, forming his theories of cognitive dissonance, suspected they would choose a response that more effectively eliminated their uncomfortable feelings of dissonance. He predicted that the group would instead become more fervent, that their response to the cognitive dissonance would be to intensify, rather than weaken, their belief, and they would shift from reclusiveness to energetic proselytizing. He was right, and by 1956 published his book When Prophecy Fails which laid the groundwork for cognitive dissonance theory.

Changing Reality

One early stream of research in cognitive dissonance theory looks at how the need to sustain a belief about ourselves and our behavior can lead us to adjust how we perceive or remember experiences and facts. Festinger showed that students who were paid a nominal sum to lie about the boring nature of a research experiment they took part in were more likely to believe their own lie than students who were paid 20 times as much. The students who were richly rewarded could easily rationalize their mendacity – they did it for the reward. But those who were paid meagerly experienced dissonance between their belief in their own honest nature and the fact of their easily sold integrity. They tended to resolve their dissonance by changing, post hoc, their cognitive appraisal of the boring nature of the research experiment.

Changing Beliefs

Other researchers found that we justify behavior that contradicts prior beliefs about ourselves by adjusting our self-beliefs. Subjects who were indifferent about energy conservation were offered a substantial financial reward if they successfully lowered their home energy use over a specific period of time. At the end of the announced trial period, the control group was duly rewarded, but in follow-up measures were only slightly more energy conscious than before. The rest were told that the funding had disappeared, they wouldn’t be paid after all. This group was far more likely to continue energy saving practices than the first group.

Cognitive dissonance theory predicted that the control group would have no dissonance – they could believe without challenge that they behaved according to reward incentives which were fulfilled. The experimental arm, on the other hand, had to deal with the dissonance of not getting paid. (“I wore sweaters and read by dim lights for NOTHING!?”) The researchers concluded that the experimental group resolved the dissonance by adjusting their self beliefs from “I don’t care about energy saving one way or another; I did it for the reward” to “I care about energy; I did it because I wanted to.”

Rationalizations to defend decisions and behavior: denigration

Cognitive dissonance theory research also looks at how dissonance appears and is resolved when we make decisions and choices. The hypothesis is that we want to believe in and validate our ability to make good decisions, and avoid experiencing the dissonance of being wrong. To tease this out, a common study model tested how subjects rated objects before and after they had to favor one and reject another.

Festinger presented housewives with an array of small gadgets, and asked them to rate how much they liked each. Testers then used three objects the subjects had rated similarly. First the subject was asked to choose between two of the three (A and B). The one they picked (call it A) was removed, and the subjects were then given a choice between the object they had rejected (call it B) and the third object, C. The common prediction is that about half would choose B and the other half C, as they had rated B and C equally before the test. Instead, significantly more subjects chose C. Cognitive dissonance theory predicted that preference. The subjects rejected B in the first round … and denigrated it. Although they initially rated A, B, and C equally, once they had rejected B they were less likely to prefer it later.

Social applications: justifying aggression

Another level of cognitive dissonance theory research considers how it affects our social interactions. Psychoanalytical theory predicts that people can dissipate their hostility towards someone by venting, by releasing pent-up anger that blocks their ability to accept or forgive the other.

Cognitive dissonance theory predicts the opposite: that engaging in aggressive actions creates a dissonance about the self that the subject needs to resolve by rationalizing or justifying the anti-social behavior. In a study that measured feelings of hostility subjects had towards someone before and after they lashed out, subjects resolved dissonance by denigrating the other person.

Putting it all together

Cognitive dissonance theory describes several key aspects of how humans deal with dissonance between reality and their beliefs about themselves or the world. To avoid dissonance we:

– Double down on our prior beliefs instead of accepting contradicting facts

– Justify and rationalize behavior that goes against our self-image, even if that behavior is immoral

– Create derogatory narratives to justify decisions and choices we made that might be wrong

– Denigrate others to justify hostility and aggressive behavior.

What could go wrong with that?

Tomorrow: So, really, what could go wrong with that?