A shutter with ‘cognitive dissonance’ spray painted on it
featured image: KylaBorg/Flickr CC BY

Consonance is boring, dissonance is hard

Is there a way to manage cognitive dissonance that doesn’t involve changing what we do or believe, or fooling ourselves?

music, two or more tones played together can sound pleasant, or unpleasant. The former is referred to as consonance , the latter as dissonance. Like other concepts from music such as harmony, tempo, and striking a chord, this term too is being used more generally as a metaphor in human behaviour and interaction. A specific case is that of cognitive dissonance, which describes the situation of holding beliefs and values that are in conflict with each other, that are contradicted by facts, or by the way we behave.

The theory around cognitive dissonance was developed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in the middle of the last century. Festinger and colleagues had joined an obscure apocalyptic cult called the Seekers. Following messages its leader claimed to have been receiving from superior beings on the planet Clarion, it had been prophesizing that the earth would be destroyed by a flood early in the morning on 21 December 1954. A small band of true believers would, however, be saved by a UFO that would arrive at midnight. The researchers naturally expected (rightly, as it turned out) that no such flood would take place, and that no UFO would appear, but they wanted to observe how the cult members would react when reality and belief diverged.

[“They’re coming to take us away, ha ha (or are they?)” (image: Maxime Raynal/Flickr CC BY)

Many of them had said goodbye to their old life, quitting jobs and spouses, and giving away their worldly possessions in preparation of their anticipated departure in the UFO. When, on 21 December, the spacecraft failed to materialize, some of the cult members reluctantly concluded they had been wrong. The most fervent believers, however, following another message apparently received by the leader, doubled down and claimed that it was their group’s faith that had saved the world from the imminent disaster the beings on planet Clarion had warned them about. (The whole story is told in the contemporary book When Prophecy Fails by Festinger and his colleagues.)

A new theory

The findings from this remarkable natural experiment contributed to the formulation of a theory of cognitive dissonance. It hypothesizes that the experience of inconsistency (or dissonance) between beliefs, or between a belief and facts or actions is psychologically uncomfortable. This discomfort then motivates us to try and reduce the dissonance and to avoid situations that increase it.

David McRaney, the host of the excellent You are not so smart podcast, summarizes two possible responses in a recent episode devoted to conspiracy theories. If a particular interpretation of new evidence suggests it is in conflict with our beliefs (and with how we act in accordance), we experience cognitive dissonance, until we either change our beliefs (and our behaviour), or change our interpretation of the facts.

Festinger illustrates this with a smoker who learns of the negative health consequences of his habit. He can either update his prior belief that smoking is not harmful and quit smoking, or engage in the mental manoeuvres necessary to reinterpret the new information in such a way that the belief holds and the behaviour can persist — for example by downplaying it (it is not as bad as is claimed) or acquiring information emphasizing the positive effects of smoking (it helps prevent weight gain).

This shows that cognitive dissonance is not just associated with the conspiratorial thinking. Conflicts between beliefs, values and principles can, and do, occur much more widely. A series of recent tweets from Belgian epidemiologist Luc Bonneux provide an interesting example, relating to the priority schemes that are being used for vaccinating people against COVID-19. In most countries, the older people and those who are vulnerable because of certain comorbidities (diabetes, obesity etc.) are at the front of the queue. But, as Dr Bonneux remarks, a glaring fact seems to be completely ignored in this approach: the gender difference in patients with COVID-19. For example, research by Jian-Min Jin and colleagues has found that, while prevalence of the disease is the same for men and women, men are 2.4 times more likely to die of the disease than women. Dr Bonneux observes that a healthy male between 60 and 64, with no lifestyle adversities, carries a higher risk of death than a 50–54-year-old female with obesity, hypertension and elevated cholesterol. Isn’t this discrimination, he wonders — shouldn’t men be prioritized for vaccination? And shouldn’t the same apply to ultra-orthodox Jews who, for religious reasons, as opposed to Christians, must celebrate weddings in large gatherings, or indeed to smokers who also run a higher risk of dying of COVID-19 than non-smokers?

It is easy to see how this insight could create cognitive dissonance in the decision-makers, the people who determine the vaccination approach. Consistently applying the principle that those at the highest risk come first quickly clashes with other principles like gender equity and religious freedom.

Dissonance for everyone

And lest you think cognitive dissonance is still something far removed from the lives of ordinary mortals, here’s something to ponder about. Most people (and I am presuming this includes you, dear reader) believe a world in which every person has enough food to eat is preferable over one in which some people are dying of starvation. Yet do we actually behave- i.e., are we spending our resources — in accordance with that belief? Are we consistently doing everything we can to realize that ideal?

A mural of a queue of people waiting for a vaccine
A mural of a queue of people waiting for a vaccine
Who gets to go first? (image: Wilfried Pohnke/Pixabay)

Even the mental gymnastics we need to engage in to avoid cognitive dissonance by reconstructing our interpretation of the facts is uncomfortable: we often know, deep down, that we are only trying to fool ourselves. Ignoring the inconvenient facts allows us to maintain the pretence that we are principled individuals, walking the righteous path — whether we are a vaccination policy maker, or just an ordinary person.

But perhaps there is yet another way to manage cognitive dissonance. We feel it most when we lack nuance in our perception, and try to maintain a simplistic, absolute world view, in which beliefs and values are unconditionally 100% true or false. It is easy and appealing to classify such beliefs, and even more the people who hold them, into just two categories: good and bad. Easy, appealing, and incompatible with the complexity of the real world.

The tension between good and bad is inherent all around us. Even the simplest transaction contains both: buying a cup of coffee is bad (we have less money) and good (we enjoy it) at the same time, yet we don’t really experience cognitive dissonance. We can choose to acknowledge such tension between good and bad in more complex situations too. An opinion piece in the LA Times by liberal columnist Virginia Hefferman offers a nice vignette: her Trump-devotee neighbours have spontaneously cleared the snow in front of her house. She cites Republican Senator Ben Sasse: “You can’t hate someone who shovels your driveway”. Even someone with ‘bad’ beliefs is capable of doing something ‘good’.

Tension, by the way, is also a term that has a musical connotation. A piece of music that has only consonance from start to finish is very boring. Adding notes that don’t quite fit with the chords, or substituting existing notes to alter harmonies builds (and releases) tension, and that is what makes music interesting.

And so it is in life more generally.

Perhaps the most important cognitive dissonance is the one between on the one hand a blunt, unsophisticated perspective on the world in which things and people are either good or bad, and on the other hand reality in which they are neither, but a complex mix of both, full of dynamic tension. If we are willing to solve it by updating our perspective, then other instances of cognitive dissonance won’t trouble us all that much, and life can be just as interesting and rewarding as the most engrossing piece of music we know.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on February 12, 2021.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thanks!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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