Cognitive Dissonance and Conflict


Cognitive Dissonance Theory, developed by Leon Festinger in 1957, states that our behavior is governed by a tendency to seek consistency in our cognitions. It is important to know about because it explains so many of our everyday behaviors. Cognitive dissonance appears in seemingly all decision making and problem solving and is the central means by which we experience new information.

A cognition is a belief, opinion, attitude, value or emotion. Knowing your favorite color is a cognition, so is whether you believe in a greater power or have a religious affiliation, that George Washington was the first president of the U.S., or that you love your children.Everyone holds a bunch of cognitions all the time. These cognitions will either have a relationship to each other or not.

If they agree with each other, they are consonant or consistent. We prefer consonance among our cognitions. Another possibility is cognitive irrelevance. This means that two cognitions don't have anything to do with each other. This is true of most cognitions. It doesn't cause us a problem. Our cognitions don't have to all agree, they just can't disagree.

Whenever you have two cognitions that don't agree you experience cognitive dissonance. For instance that you are trying to lose weight but you like ice cream, or that you are a good student yet fail to study. It seems that we humans need to have stability, consistency and order in the way we see the world. When our cognitions don't agree we experience psychological dissonance which we experience as an unpleasant sensation of physical tension. This tension motivates us to act to seek relief from this instability in our thoughts. The drive to do this seems to be as strong in us as the need to eat when hungry or drink when thirsty. So when we experience it we want to do away with the dissonance as quickly as possible.

Doing Away with Dissonance or Cognitive Dissonance Strategies

To release the tension we can take one or more of the following actions:

Ignore or eliminate the dissonant ideas. This means that we reduce the importance of the dissonant ideas to us or refuse to accept certain information. We pretend that eating ice cream is good for us. By ignoring the dissonant cognitions we can allow ourselves to do something that we would otherwise view as wrong or inappropriate.

You can see examples of this in the way people interpret the same information. Some are pro-life others pro-choice. Some believe in global warming others do not. Yet we are all viewing the same information. How is this possible? We interpret information in a way that supports our views of the world. To do this we will conveniently "forget" any fact that doesn't seem to agree, and remember everything that fits.In the ice cream example if a new study comes out saying ice cream is even more fattening than was previously known, we just ignore that study. And to prevent future problems we will avoid information of that type in the future. We won't read studies on ice cream or articles about weight loss, or, perhaps, health magazines.

Alter the importance (or lack thereof) of certain cognitions to us. We can decide that ice cream is extremely good and something we can't live without. Or that we look good as we are and don't need to lose weight. This lessens the feeling of dissonance. And, if one dissonant cognition is more important to us than the other, the result means that we can eat our ice cream without feeling bad about it.

Studies have shown people value things they have to work hard for or that cost a lot. So if we apply to join a group that has many barriers to admission we value our membership more because of the difficulties we experienced in getting in - even if it turns out not to be a very good club. In blind wine tastings where all identifying information is blocked out but a price tag is exhibited on each bottle, people always choose the most expensive as the best - even when the bottles have been deliberately mislabeled so that the "expensive" bottle actually contains cheap wine!"

Create or add new cognitions. By creating or highlighting new cognitions, we can overpower the fact that we know that ice cream and weight loss don't mix. We can "remind" ourselves that we exercise several times a week or that we need the calcium we get from ice cream. Since we now have several cognitions that say ice cream is good and only one that says it is bad, we lessen the dissonance within us.

People quickly modify their values to fit their behavior even when they know the behavior is wrong. So someone who knows that stealing is wrong but still steals office supplies from work, justiies this behavior by claiming "everyone does it and I will lose out if I don't," "I'm paid less than I am worth so deserve something extra," or, the big boys get all sorts of perks that make what I am doing pale in comparison."

How People React

Cognitive dissonance explains a lot about human behavior.

One example involves what people do when they set a specific date for a predicted event, and then the date passes without the event occurring. Do people conclude they were wrong? Oh, no. Instead of deciding they were wrong, they did the opposite and advocated all the harder.

Festinger used the theory to explain the behavior of the followers a woman he named Marian Keach, who believed that she had received messages from aliens warning her of the end of the world on December 21 in the 1950's. She started advocating and attracted a group of followers among those she knew but maintained a policy of strict secrecy to outsiders, particularly the press. As the date approached believers gave up their jobs, gave away their possessions and publicly declared their belief.

On December 20, Mrs. Keach received a message saying the group should be ready to meet an alien at midnight who would take them to a flying saucer and drilled their responses to anticipated questions from the alien. Nothing happened at midnight or for several hours afterward even though the world was supposed to end at 7 a.m. At 4:45 a.m. Mrs. Keach announced she had received a message that the destruction of the world had been called off because the group sitting all night, "had spread so much light that God saved the World." She then received a message telling her to publicize this and immediately called the media. The group followed her lead. They gave press conferences and fervently trolled for converts. They behaved exactly as the theory predicted.

You can read more about Festinger's work at Classics in the History of Psychology

The factors that effected how they reacted include:

  • Importance. The more important the cognition is to us, the greater the feelings of dissonance and the more actively we try to reduce it. Being wrong about what time it is doesn't compare to having paid too much for a house or a car.

  • Resistance to Change. How fixed the cognitions are will impact efforts to reduce dissonance. This resistance to change idea is the most important part of the theory. It provides the central focus for figuring out how the dissonance will likely be reduced and how big the dissonance is. There are three sources for resistance to change:

    • How clear cut the facts are. There is a lot of information available in the public domain about global warming. Some see it as news and are willing to act upon it. Others see all this "news" as more "hype" from the "liberal" media; or, or see global warming as a conspiracy cooked up by a cabal of scientists and celebrities for their own gain; or have decided that global warming will involve government regulation and international cooperation which isn't a good idea. In any case, global warming is thus not a real problem.

    • How difficult it is to change events. Deciding your workplace is a disappointment is easier to do if you have a job offer than if you don't have anywhere to go. People tend to focus on the things that are easiest to change. Opinions always contain some ambiguity and are easier targets than fixed beliefs. Those cognitions that resist change the most stay and dissonance reduction efforts are organized around them.

    • Timing. Experiments have shown that the more recent a commitment, the higher the resistance to change.

  • Responsibility. If a cognition doesn't appear to have a negative consequence, we are less likely to feel a need to explain it and therefore less likely to experience dissonance. But if someone is able to foresee the negative consequences, chooses and then creates the consequences, personal responsibility is established and the strain to explain is great.

  • Self Esteem. Self-respect is one of the cognitions that is mostly resistant to change. Any idea that boosts self-esteem is likely to be accepted and any that threatens rejected.

  • Social Support. The more people who we find that support alternative explanations or find it reasonable to ignore something, the more it makes sense to an individual. A group can withstand contrary evidence much better than an isolated individual.

Believing Our Own Lies

What the altered or added cognitions all have in common is that they can all be categorized as rationalizations. And, if we aren't careful we can start believing our own rationalizations which is the most serious consequence of cognitive dissonance - believing our own lies.

A study about interactions between doctors and drug company sales representatives proves the point. The study showed that doctors understand the concept of conflict of interest -- someone in a position of trust having competing professional or personal interests. Such competing interests can make it difficult to fulfill his or her duties impartially. --- and understand how to apply this to relationships with sales reps. Yet doctors continue to meet regularly with sales reps and maintain a positive view of doctor-sales rep exchanges despite evidence to the contrary.

To resolve the cognitive dissonance, doctors use a variety of denials and rationalizations - they avoid thinking about the issue; they disagree that the relationships effect doctor behavior; they deny responsibility for the problem; they decide that such meetings are educational and thus benefit patients; and they list techniques that supposedly allow them to remain impartial.

The study concluded that though the doctors understood the concept of conflict of interest, they were in denial about the psychological dynamics that these relationships created that influenced their judgment. Thus, the study found that voluntary guidelines governing doctor drug rep relationships were inadequate and that sterner measures were required.

For more see Physicians and Drug Representatives: Exploring the Dynamics of the Relationship.

It turns out that humans aren't the only ones that can rationalize their behavior, even when it is irrational. See this recent N.Y. Times article which reported on a recent study demonstrating that capuchin monkeys and children exhibit the same behavior thus suggesting that this behavior shows evolutionary utility for humans and animals.

For more see Cognitive Dissonance and Conflict Management.

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