So is cognitive dissonance a cruel joke inflicted on humankind to ensure our eventual self destruction? Shirley, there must be good reason for it. Shirley? (More)

Monday I proposed a connection between cognitive dissonance and violent extremism. Yesterday I explored the science of cognitive dissonance. Today I’ll look at some implications and solutions.

Why does this matter?

If humans were simple rational machines, cognitive dissonance would be trivial. Dissonant facts A and B would simply be data points. If algorithms that account for fact A don’t account for fact B, then the facts are reexamined, to find error or to advance the algorithms.

But humans are messier than that. We require meaning – we need to see the patterns and causes for behavior. We organize our understanding of the social world through our beliefs about why we do things. To encounter dissonance – a fact B that contradicts belief A – is to challenge our essential means of making sense of the world.

It’s no coincidence that the most intractable conflicts in human history are not over hegemony but about differences in beliefs. World War II was settled relatively quickly on equations of relative force; Catholics fight Protestants for centuries.

Does it have to be this way?

Cognitive dissonance theory researchers recently sought to learn more about the origins of these instincts. They created a version of the preference – denigration experiments we discussed yesterday that could be tested on two populations that could help sort out the evolution of cognitive dissonance responses: monkeys and toddlers.

They found that the mechanisms to rationalize and defend preference choices by denigration are indeed present in primates and undeveloped minds of children, suggesting that we are indeed hard-wired to reconcile dissonance by mentally adjusting our versions of reality.

That makes sense from the perspective of evolutionary psychology: there is adaptive advantage to righteousness – an efficiency of effort in choosing and defending beliefs that are socially constructed. Evolution theory is moving from ‘survival of the fittest’ towards ‘survival of the fittest social group,’ be it clan, tribe, village or sect. As primitive men evolved into clustered social beings, sub-group formation and longevity would privilege cohesion and commitment. To me, it’s logical to guess that articulated human culture arose to serve those adaptive needs for group cohesion.

In early human development we can understand the adaptive and social advantages of a competitive group’s ability to unify without question over common cause and identity, against survival threats from out-group ‘others’ that look, sound, and act just like in-group members.

Fast-forward 50,000 years or more, and we have ‘democrats’ and ‘liberals’ bitterly encamped against ‘republicans’ and ‘conservatives,’ while largely sharing common culture, national identity, and many values and beliefs. Not to mention that we look alike and live next door to each other in apparent harmony. Holy cognitive dissonance!

Cognitive Dissonance: The worst of it

We evolved many hard wired traits to enhance our efficiency in conflicts, among them our instinct to reconcile cognitive dissonance. We fight well, and we sustain our emotional commitment to the battle better, when we aren’t distracted by dissonance.

Which means today we dehumanize others who oppose us only ideologically. Cognitive dissonance theory explains that a belief about the right way of life also entails conviction that it is the wise, proper, and reasoned choice for similar humans to make, and a need to have that conviction be socially validated.

If I believe in fairies, and my favorite TV network confirms for me that fairies are real, to learn that a fellow citizen or neighbor would believe otherwise is dissonant. How could they not see this correctly? There must be something wrong with them.

And there, in a flash, we see cognitive dissonance theory in action. It felt obvious and natural to move from incredulity to denigration.

What happens when this process is amplified by high-stakes economic and political battles, fueled by narratives of threat and fear, and seeded in volatile ground made unstable by social polarization?

If there is a terrible cascade of conditions that can lead to deadly political violence, cognitive dissonance response plays a role: in enabling the dehumanization of the other, rationalizing enmity, justifying hatred, and eliminating the dissonance of cruelty inflicted on our own kind.

Equivalences, false and true

The mutual enmity in our current heated political climate has a compounding, self-reinforcing effect. To hear A ridicule and denigrate B only serves to enlarge and justify the hatred and derision B feels about A. The verbal war cuts both ways.

In this sense I believe liberals have to acknowledge our complicity: we are equally guilty of delegitimizing and denigrating our ideological opponents. It feels good, but it doesn’t make them agree with us.

However I do not accept the paradigm that the articulation of this enmity is equivalent. Society can withstand the yelling when conflicting parties constrain their narratives of denigration to the spheres of politics and public policy acumen. But we fracture in dangerous ways when one side conflates their ideological rancor with more threatening narratives of racism, social destruction, and violent repression. Society needs journalists and leaders who have the courage and wisdom to discern between mutual enmity and asymmetrical escalation that does us all harm.


The best case for optimism about social cohesion comes, ironically, from cognitive dissonance itself. America is splintering. Tax policy, social policy, and cultural and commerce-driven factors are pushing our one society further and further apart. When this happens in the context of propaganda-driven conflict over power and resources, I worry.

One remedy: let dissonance be dissonant.

My twin brother lives in Minnesota, just outside of Michele Bachmann’s district, and he’d vote for her if he could. He works in an ammunition factory – making bullets – and he’s a fundamentalist Christian who takes the word of the bible literally. We couldn’t be further apart on dozens of social and ideological dimensions. (I’m an east coast liberal academic, among other sins.)

Yet we spend most of each summer working together at a mission project leading youth teams who repair and renovate housing for indigent elderly and handicapped people in a poor area of western New York state. We love being together, and never talk politics. I know his beliefs, but he’s my twin, more like me than not, so I accept the dissonance that he could see the world so differently. And vice versa.

What would you do?

When I teach cognitive dissonance theory to my college students, I hold my hands far apart to depict the magnitude of cognitive dissonance surrounding ideological issues. The human instinct, I say as I bring my hands together, is to close that distance, to shut it down. I remind them we are in a university to solve problems. The dissonance is still there, even after we close down our perception of it. We need to accept the dissonance … I spread my hands apart again … and convert that gap into a space for solutions. I ask them, do you want look at the world with a closed mind, or an open mind?

What could go wrong with that?