Cognitive Dissonance and
Conflict Management


Cognitive dissonance plays a big role in perpetuating conflict.
Think of Northern Ireland, or Bosnia, or the Israelis
and Palestinians. In every case each side has characterized
its opponents as less than human or barbarians
and deserving of what is being done to them. This
characterization allows people who may otherwise believe
that it is wrong to kill to take part in terrorist activities
or ethnic cleansing.

Although these two cognitions are dissonant, this dissonance can be overcome by creating new cognitions ("they aren't human" or "they're barbarians," etc.) or by emphasizing one cognition at the expense of the other.

As important, the conflict can be perpetuated by the fact that each side is closed to new information that might dispel these false ideas about the other side. Thus a Serb may not be willing to hear about the thoughts, feelings and family of a Bosnian, because these contradict the Serb's view of Bosnians as inhuman. This concept helps explain why people are so opposed to counterarguments, especially when it regards a value or belief that is very important to them.

Cognitive Dissonance and Decision Making

Dissonance theory applies to all situations involving the formation of attitudes and change. Therefore it is particularly relevant to decision making and problem solving. Dissonance most often occurs when we must choose between conflicting attitudes or behaviors or a behavior that conflicts with an attitude or belief. Most often when the latter occurs, we choose the course of least resistance, and change our attitude or belief to fit our behavior. For instance, think about someone buying an expensive car which doesn't get good gas mileage and then confronting the reality of $4.00 per gallon gas.

There is now dissonance between their belief that they have bought a good car and their belief that a good car shouldn't be so expensive to keep on the road. To lessen the dissonance they may decide that it doesn't matter since they only use the car for short trips (reducing the importance of the dissonant belief.) Or, they focus on the car's strengths such as appeal, handling, features (adding more consonant beliefs.) They could also eliminate the dissonance by getting rid of the car, but this takes a lot more work than changing a belief.

Cognitive dissonance can be a motivating factor for us to make changes in our lives. For example, if we divorce an unsuitable mate, we will attempt to avoid those behaviors that caused the dissonance in our first marriage when choosing another spouse. Cognitive dissonance then becomes a motivating force persuading us to change our circumstances to bring about a sense of equilibrium in our lives. To reduce the tension we may feel impelled to change our circumstances or our perceptions. Someone who is unemployed and thus is unable to buy things s/he wants or to pay their bills usually feels pressured and frustrated - signs of dissonance. Looking for a job, working part time, or similar adjustments will reduce the pressure and discomfort of the dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance and Conflict Management

Cognitive dissonance can play an important role in lessening or resolving conflict. Even though we seem to be hardwired to avoid it, cognitive dissonance can be a useful tool for overcoming or managing conflict. When we create cognitive dissonance, people are forced to react.

When we draw someone's attention to the disparity between what they say and what they do e.g. knowing stealing is wrong but taking office supplies at work, we create a level of discomfort which can encourage change. If we can then support it with self esteem or social support cognitions, the more likely the positive change.

So, too, with ethnic conflicts by pointing out the contradiction between religious beliefs and acts of terrorism or violence, we can create pressure for people to rethink their actions. For example, a Protestant or Catholic terrorist in Northern Ireland can take part in violent activities because they have created cognitions that have dehumanized the other side. This gets rid of the dissonance between their actions and beliefs. Dissonance can be introduced by introducing new information about their opponents that shows the opponents as human. This will create dissonance between what they now know and what they are doing.

Although individuals may never agree, the conflict - especially violent conflict - can be reduced or ended.

Techniques to Create Dissonance

Dialogue. There are many examples of what is known as Track II and Track III diplomacy in longstanding conflicts. These are less formal efforts that facilitate exchanges and dialogue between individuals on opposite sides of a conflict. An example in the U.S. is the Public Conversations Project which has been facilitating dialogues between pro-life and pro-choice activists for several years. Participants don't leave these exchanges and change sides, but they do develop new understanding about those on the "other side" and an appreciation for how "good" people can differ on an issue. This tends to impact their advocacy efforts, toning down the rhetoric and investigating more constructive methods.

Disarming Behavior can create cognitive dissonance by acting against type. Practically it means finding out specifically what the other side thinks you are like and doing something quite different then they expect. Two examples in diplomacy at Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's surprising trip to Israel in 1977 and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev's trip to the U.S. in 1990. Neither had visited the enemy's country before. Each was quite personable and outgoing. This behavior elicited positive press and changed many Israeli and American minds about the intent or "goodness" of the enemy.

Negotiation which implies face to face communication. Often in tense conflict situations all communication has broken down between the sides. During the negotiation of the Camp David Accords, President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin did not meet face to face until the end. But both sides talked regularly to President Carter and his aides who shuttled back and forth with proposals and counter proposals. Anyway that increases communication and contact will create dissonance that disrupts stereotypes and hostile attitudes providing an impetus toward change.

For more see Cognitive Dissonance and Conflict

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