Before my use of Facebook, I imagined that, apart from insignificant personal differences, most people I know agreed on matters of true and false, right and wrong, good and evil. No more. Now, I never fail to be astounded by how differently my friends and relatives and I may react to the same morning headlines.
In my search for understanding, I encountered the term cognitive dissonance. This is a feeling of psychological discomfort that triggers a reaction that can cause a person to deny reality.
Initially, I thought it was just another term for hypocrisy, but now I realize that it is a form of psychological self-defense that we all practice.
First, let’s look at the words that make up the term.
cognition (noun): the action or faculty of knowing taken in its widest sense, including sensation, perception, conception, etc., as distinguished from feeling and will.
cognitive (adjective): of or pertaining to cognition, or to the action or process of knowing.
dissonance (noun): lack of concord or harmony between things; disagreement, discord.
In the 1950s, psychologist Leon Festinger infiltrated a doomsday cult whose members believed the world was going to end by a certain date. He wanted to see how the cultists would react when the date passed and the world had not ended. As might be expected, some felt foolish, lost trust in the cult leader and moved on. Some, however, the most committed believers, the ones who had sold all their possessions and abandoned families and jobs, did not lose faith. They came up with reasons to explain why the disaster had not taken place.
Festinger’s A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957) suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and behavior in harmony and avoid disharmony. This is known as the principle of cognitive consistency. When we do something or learn something that contradicts the attitudes and beliefs we already hold, we experience psychological discomfort. We have to do something to restore equilibrium. Anastasia Belyh describes it this way:
Cognitive dissonance refers to the feelings of discomfort that arise when a person’s behavior or attitude is in conflict with the person’s values and beliefs, or when new information that is contrary to their beliefs is presented to them. People like consistency. They want the assurance that their values and beliefs have always been right. They always want to act in ways that are in line with their beliefs. When their beliefs are challenged, or when their behavior is not aligned with their beliefs, this creates a disagreement (dissonance).— “Understanding Cognitive Dissonance (and Why it Occurs in Most People).”
Everyone experiences cognitive dissonance on a daily basis. Even the smallest decision requires us to weigh options and choose. If we are uncertain we’ve made the correct choice, we find reasons to assure ourselves that we did. If we attempt something and fail, we might tell ourselves that we nevertheless gained valuable experience.
An example of cognitive dissonance often cited is Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes. In the beginning, the fox is certain that the grapes are delicious and that he has the ability to obtain them. When he fails in his efforts, he comforts himself by declaring that the grapes are certainly sour and not worth having.
As if dealing with reality weren’t difficult enough, we live in an era of aggressive information overload. Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of Institute for the Future, warns that
[w]e are living in an unprecedented information environment. Our attention is monopolized and fractured by a multitude of devices, applications, websites, and notifications. Manipulation has never been so easy or so refined. And mass data surveillance enables exquisitely accurate targeting of manipulative information. Traditional strengths of democratic systems—diversity and freedom of expression—are making us particularly vulnerable to a growing army of media and information manipulators.
Like WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has coined the term infodemic, Gorbis sees this onslaught of misinformation as a disease that threatens to infect the body politic. She regards the information manipulators as parasites and recommends that we strive to develop a cognitive immunity to protect our thinking from becoming infected with falsehood.
Unlike hypocrisy, cognitive dissonance takes place mostly on an unconscious level. When confronting an important decision, one that can have wide-reaching consequences for many people, it would be wise to examine our reasoning and ascertain the validity of our evidence.