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Cognitive Dissonance

Inducing Cognitive Dissonance Can Reveal the Truth

Creating cognitive dissonance is an effective elicitation technique.

Key points

  • Inducing cognitive dissonance is an effective elicitation technique to obtain sensitive information without asking direct questions.
  • In an attempt to reduce the anxiety caused by cognitive dissonance, people often reveal sensitive information.
  • Creating cognitive dissonance predisposes people to reveal sensitive information they may not have revealed under direct questioning.
Craig Adderley/Pixels
Source: Craig Adderley/Pixels

Elicitation is a technique to obtain sensitive information without asking direct questions. Direct questions trigger defensive responses to protect information people would prefer to remain unsaid.

Elicitation works because elicitation techniques are based on behavioral characteristics that predispose people to reveal sensitive information they would not normally reveal when asked a direct question. For example, creating cognitive dissonance predisposes people to reveal sensitive information unknowingly.

Cognitive Dissonance

People strive to maintain internal consistency or equilibrium. Cognitive dissonance, or loss of equilibrium, occurs when a person holds two opposing ideas simultaneously. Cognitive dissonance can also occur when people are presented with ideas that directly oppose what they think or believe. Cognitive dissonance causes feelings of discomfort and anxiety.

The intensity of cognitive dissonance depends on how highly a person values the opposing perspective. Cognitive dissonance is greater when the opposing views are personal. The greater the cognitive dissonance, the more pressure a person feels the need to reduce or eliminate the cognitive dissonance and, thereby, alleviate anxiety.

The anxiety caused by cognitive dissonance can be alleviated in several ways. First, the person could change their beliefs or attitudes. Second, the person could attempt to convince other people that their beliefs are not valid. Or, third, they can outright dismiss the opposing view as invalid.

Students in my writing class face cognitive dissonance when they see the grades for their first report writing assignment. Students come into the classroom thinking they are good writers. They see the poor grades on their first assignment and think, “Maybe I’m not a good writer; at least that’s what my professor thinks.” These two opposing perspectives cause cognitive dissonance.

At this point, the students have three options to reduce the anxiety created by cognitive dissonance. First, they could spend a lot of time convincing me that they are, in fact, good writers. Second, they could admit they are poor writers and take steps to improve their writing skills. Or, third, they could outright dismiss my critique as wrong. I then comment, that inducing cognitive dissonance also serves as an effective elicitation technique.

One of my students was skeptical. The student who challenged me was a good student, but he failed to turn in a few class assignments and had mediocre exam grades. I asked the student if he thought he was a good student. He replied, “Yes.”

I asked, “What does it take to be a good student?” I asked him this to have him establish a baseline of what attributes he believes a good student should possess.

He told me, “Not missing class, completing the assignments, participating in class discussions, studying for exams.”

After establishing a baseline, I induced cognitive dissonance. I said, “I noticed you failed to turn in a few class assignments. I also noticed that your exam scores are mediocre.”

The student paused and replied, “I am a good student. It’s just that I’m taking seven classes this semester, and I’m overwhelmed with coursework. Besides, I’m trying to graduate early because I want to get a job and start making money so I can get married as soon as I graduate. I may have missed a few things in this class, but I am a good student.”

The student realized that he did not meet his self-described definition of a good student, which created cognitive dissonance. To reduce the anxiety caused by cognitive dissonance, he provided information to justify that he was a good student despite his poor class performance.

At the end of my lecture, the student approached me and said, “I really am a good student.” He continued to recite additional reasons how he could be a good student and yet fail to turn in the assignments and do poorly on exams. He reassured me that from now on, he would turn in his assignments on time and study harder for the exams. The student’s performance increased significantly after our discussion.

Inducing cognitive dissonance achieved two objectives. The first objective was to find out why the student was not doing his best in my class, and the second objective was to help the student realize that he should take steps to improve his class performance and, more importantly, live up to his self-described expectations of what a good student should be.

Elicitation is a powerful technique to obtain sensitive information that people would not otherwise reveal under direct questioning.

References

For more about elicitation techniques, see The Truth Detector: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide for Getting People to Reveal the Truth.

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