How Cognitive Dissonance Makes Us Adopt Incredible Beliefs
We use dissonance-reducing strategies to blind ourselves to uncomfortable truths
Posted Dec 19, 2020
By Berit Brogaard & Dimitria E. Gatzia
Imagine that Chad claims to be a committed environmentalist but continues to consume animal products. Since animal agriculture contributes to climate change, and since Chad knows this, you may be inclined to think of him as a hypocrite. A hypocrite, after all, is someone who professes to hold beliefs they do not actually hold. If Chad were a committed environmentalist, you may argue, he would most certainly adopt a plant-based diet.
Although hypocrisy may be a plausible explanation in many such cases, not all inconsistencies between belief and actions are instances of hypocrisy. Of course, in an ideal world, our actions would always reflect our attitudes. But our world is far from ideal.
Research shows that while some of our actions are intentional, others involve unconscious, automatic responses. Our unconscious mind can, and often does, exert influence on our actions—for instance, when we act on the basis of our unconscious, or implicit, biases and stereotypes. A recent study found a broad pattern of discrimination in law enforcement against black drivers: police officers throughout the United States pulled over black drivers at significantly higher rates than white drivers, even after controlling for the drivers’ age and gender (Pierson et al., 2020).
What explains such patterns of discrimination in law enforcement? Is it just blatant racism? Or is the answer more nuanced? The short answer is yes, the results indicate that racial bias is involved, although things may be a bit more complicated than that. One complication likely involves cognitive dissonance, a term coined by psychologist Leo Festinger in 1957.
Festinger used the term “cognitive dissonance” to refer to cases involving a cognitive inconsistency between an attitude (such as a belief or a desire) and an action, giving rise to psychological discomfort, such as frustration, guilt, shame, or self-hatred.
Festinger’s hypothesis was that such psychological discomfort triggers unconscious dissonance-reducing strategies. That is, when we are cognitively dissonant, we attempt to resolve the inconsistency—often by changing our beliefs. But when we change our beliefs to resolve the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we may end up adopting dubious beliefs.
A classic example of cognitive dissonance that can alter a person's beliefs from credible to incredible is that of a heavy smoker who has an almost irresistible urge to continue smoking. Yet the addict may also have a desire to quit smoking, as she knows it can cause lung cancer. To avoid the inconsistency between her urge to smoke and her desire to quit, she may unconsciously resort to a dissonance-reducing strategy, which might involve adopting the belief that the claim that smoking can cause lung cancer is "fake news."
In a well-known 1959 experiment, Festinger and his colleague James Carlsmith asked three groups of participants to perform a series of boring tasks, such as turning pegs in a peg board for an hour.
The participants thought that the experiment was over at this point. However, after they finished the task, which was rather dull and boring, the experimenter would “hire” participants from two of the groups to tell a waiting “participant” that the task was interesting, enjoyable, and lots of fun.
Participants were paid either $1 or $20 to do the job. The waiting “participant” was a confederate of the experimenter who pretended to be a volunteer about to perform the same task. The participants in the third group served as controls and were therefore not “hired” to do anything. After finishing their job, psychology students approached the participants under the pretense of wanting to improve the psychology program and asked them whether they found the task boring or enjoyable.
Festinger and Carlsmith found that participants who had received only $1 for lying to the waiting “participant” (the confederate) rated the boring task as more interesting and enjoyable than the participants who had received $20 for telling the same lie.
The researchers took these findings to show that the participants in the $1 group were more motivated than the participants in the $20 group to avoid the discomfort of having to take responsibility for lying and as a result had a greater incentive to change their initial belief that the task was boring and start thinking of it as fun.
The study thus confirms Festinger’s theory that when we suffer from cognitive dissonance, we tend to automatically do whatever is easiest for us to alleviate the discomfort.
As we argue in this post, the dissonance-reducing strategies employed by the participants in Festinger and Carlsmith's study could play a pivotal role in explaining the perpetuation of systemic racism.
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Festinger, L., Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203–210.
Pierson, E. Simoiu, C. Overgoor, J., Corbett-Davies, S., Jenson, D., Shoemaker, A., Ramachandran, V., Barghouty, P. , Phillips, C., Shroff, R., and Goel, S. (2020) A large-scale analysis of racial disparities in police stops across the United States. Nature Human Behaviour, 4: 736–745.