Science Tuesdays: Cognitive Dissonance

Hola Everybody,
I spent too much time blog_ commenting on my friend Rala’s post, so my own blog will suffer because of it.

I keep forgetting to mention that I’ve reached a point here on 360 where I usually get deleted. If that happens, I will not be opening up a new page here. Instead, I’ll move everything over to my blog on WordPress (click here). If you’re someone who reads me regularly, then I would suggest you bookmark that page.

It’s Science Tuesday s! LOL!

* * *

Cognitive Dissonance


“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, On Self Reliance



I was once part of a panel addressing a national audience on the negative consequences of mass incarceration. One of the panelists had just given a powerful presentation showing that incarceration as a social policy practice actually worked to make communities less safe. In other words, one of the negative effects of mass incarceration is that it works to make the communities those incarcerated come from less safe.

His research was impeccable and he had these maps that were powerful in presenting the issue – they had huge emotional impact, these maps. I was amazed.

However, some audience members, many of whom spent years pursuing mass incarceration practices and had just presented the previous day how effective they were in incarcerating individuals, were furious. There was a lot of arguing and outrage coming from these audience members.

My colleague handled it well, but he seemed flustered. During a break in the presentation, he admitted to me that he was at a loss as to why people would react so strongly against his findings. He was a little frustrated that his facts and reasoning, so obvious to anyone who bothered to look, failed to convert some people.

I knew why those audience members were so angry. They were angry because they had been presented with information – facts – that contradicted their frames of reference. We invest a lot of value in how we perceive reality (our “frames”), and if we’re presented with evidence that contradicts our frames, we will toss out the evidence and keep the frame. We all do this to a degree.

It’s called cognitive dissonance.

Of course, when it came my turn to present to this audience, I tore a new asshole into those that objected. How? I used my colleague’s research as a jumping off point, but I also offered the audience a new frame in addition. I wasn’t that nice about it too because I don’t like prosecutors who think they know it all, but the rest of the audience “got it” (the research) once I added a frame to the research. You can’t expect people to drop a frame of reference if you don’t give them something they can use as a substitute.

In 1957, social psychologist Leon Festinger published a paper that would be one of the most influential on human behavior. The paper, Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, proposed a simple theory. We all hold a variety of beliefs, ideas, and thoughts, which scientists call cognitions. For the most part, our cognitions are unrelated to one another. For example, a love of rap music has nothing to do with the election of our current dunce of a president.

However, when our thoughts or actions are related to each other, there is a deep-rooted need for them to be consistent. Some evolutionary psychologists attribute this need as an artifact to earlier times where not being consistent meant being ostracized and often being shunned from your tribe (ensuring death). Whatever the case, contradictions result in a state of dissonance that the mind cannot tolerate. The conflicting cognition or behavior must change in order for the individual’s brain to bring back a sense of balance or equilibrium. Since thought are easier to change than behavior, we are more likely to change our mindset.

Festinger used the example of smoking. A woman who smokes experiences cognitive dissonance when she hears about the health risks. So, why don’t people just stop smoking? That’s just one solution, changing the behavior. It’s also the harder one because behavior, especially addictive behavior, is difficult to change. What happens is the smoker will most likely change her beliefs about smoking in order to reduce the stress of cognitive dissonance.

For example, she might choose to focus on the positive health aspects of smoking, such as relief from tension and weight loss. Or, she might think, “If I stop smoking, I’ll gain weight, which is also bad for me.” On the other hand, she might rationalize her smoking by comparing it to other everyday risks, like the risk of getting into a car accident. The smoker might think to herself, “If people get on the road everyday without hesitating, why should I worry about lighting a cigarette?” Such rationalizations allow people to stay stuck in denial by keeping their behaviors consistent with their beliefs, thereby reducing cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance has practical value, since it’s used by advertisers to make you buy things, for example.




2 thoughts on “Science Tuesdays: Cognitive Dissonance

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s