Cognitive Dissonance

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Another critical barrier to “Proper Thinking” and intellectual integrity is the theory of Cognitive Dissonance.

It’s important to understand that this cognitive weakness can be the reason for us to default to other barriers to accurate thinking such as Confirmation Bias and Rationalization. As part of our Knowledge Adventuring it will always serve us well to be aware of these thinking biases and adapt our attitude and approach to the pursuit of enlightenment and truth.

What is it?

Cognitive Dissonance is a theory developed by Leon Festinger in 1957 and essentially holds that we as human beings experience mental stress and discomfort when we either:

  • hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values at the same time, or
  • perform an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas, or values, or
  • are confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

We have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (dissonance) as it is psychologically unpleasant.  We seek consistency between our expectations and reality so we are motivated to attempt to reduce the dissonance.

The degree of dissonance will vary with the importance and level of ‘investment’ of our beliefs and values, with the degree of inconsistency between our behavior and this belief, and our inability to rationalize and explain away the conflict.

It is most powerful when it is about our self-image.  We don’t want to feel foolish or immoral so those feelings are a sign of dissonance within.  The greater the dissonance the more you will be motivated to resolve it.

“People don’t like to think. If one thinks, one must reach conclusions. Conclusions are not always pleasant.”   – Attributed to Helen Keller

We deal with Cognitive Dissonance in one of a few ways:

  1. Try to change one or more of our beliefs, values or behaviors involved in the dissonance.
  2. Justify behavior or beliefs by acquiring new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs (Confirmation Bias).
  3. Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs (Rationalization).

#1 is extremely difficult and not likely to occur unless a person is open to change and adapting new information. This isn’t the natural tendency for us.  Our beliefs and values tend to stay the same or even strengthened as they are (in the same direction), and our cognitive biases naturally rally against this course of action.

#2 is when we want to eliminate the discomfort from dissonance by seeking out confirming evidence to support our existing beliefs and values. We don’t consider disconfirming evidence, as that would only increase the dissonance.

#3 is when we want to eliminate the discomfort from dissonance but can’t quite find enough confirming evidence to support our position (or too lazy to find it), so we ignore, reject or rationalize it to ourselves and others.  If we can’t make an honest case for our stance, we may dismiss the dissonant information as insufficient or fraudulent.

Why do we do it?

We all have cherished beliefs that have developed over a lifetime of cultural/societal ‘education’ and conditioning.  We usually go to great lengths to protect those beliefs – particularly the longer we’ve invested effort and ownership in them.  It is extremely hard to change a belief that has grown to be a person’s entire soul, fiber and character (their self-identity).

So, when faced with information that might rock the foundation of those beliefs, we knee-jerk react to the dissonance created.  Instead of stepping back, viewing everything objectively and with an eye for obtaining the most accurate and true picture, we default to being an arrogant and incompetent thinker – via irrational thinking.

The fundamental tendency of human behavior is to be irrational much of the time. So when the unpleasantness and tension of cognitive dissonance hits us we would rather be close-minded than be informed and deal with the repercussions of it.

Even people who erroneously think their beliefs are scientific may come by their notions gradually and their commitment may escalate to the point of irrationality..

How to fight it?

Out of the three methods listed above for dealing with Cognitive Dissonance, we should ideally try to adopt #1 (Try to change one or more of our beliefs).  This is, assuming of course, an objective review of evidence and information indicates our beliefs, values, behaviors are probably in error and in need of adjusting.

#2 and #3 are only mental gymnastics and are attributes of incompetent thinking.  Do you want to be an incompetent thinker?

Don’t ignore or deny the evidence. Consider it honestly and humbly. Is it telling you something?  Can you achieve a more accurate picture of reality if you commit to changing when needed?  Don’t knee-jerk rationalize or attack the evidence attempting to destroy it from your psyche.

If the topic of the dissonance is of importance, particularly if it’s something you feel STRONGLY about, do some investigation.  Decide for yourself that you honestly want to review all the evidence in an objective manner – that you want to achieve accuracy and truth.

Step back, take some time to dig into it – again with honesty, refusing to bend to your natural biases.  Make sure you don’t default to Confirmation Bias and Rationalizations.  Objectively include opposing evidence and assess it with equal fairness and judgment as confirming information. Weigh all the evidence from all sides and come to a conclusion.

Where is the evidence leading?  Might my beliefs and assumptions in life be in need of refinement – no matter how long I’ve held them or how ingrained and orthodox they are to the mainstream herd?

Know that your conclusions shouldn’t be cast in concrete and held as irrefutable.  New evidence may come to light which would lead to further refinement. The goal, instead, should be a continual path of discovery and refinement as you learn and grow.

Bottom Line . . .

Do you want to go through life as an incompetent thinker with little-to-no intellectual integrity? Do you want to be a walking error?

Or do you want the adventure of enlightenment – continually refining your knowledge, beliefs and values with ever more accurate and representative of the truth?

Choosing the latter is a formula for an amazing life of continual adventure and discovery!  There is a huge liberating feeling and realization you get when you refine, change and grow.

Admit you’re beliefs, values and behaviors may need refinement.  Discover the most accurate information you can. Approach your discoveries with a humble attitude of wanting to know – regardless of where the road leads.

Don’t deny reality.

(Featured image by Robert Couse-Baker on flickr, licensed by CC BY 2.0)

Some decent online sources: (there are many others of course)

As with any sourcing on the internet, links can go ‘dead’ after a time. If you find the above-mentioned links no longer working, try the WayBack Machine:    It’s sometimes a good way to pull up and view websites that are no longer active.