Sunday, September 5, 2010

Cognitive dissonance theory and life

Cognitive dissonance theory holds that the human mind is unable to hold contradictory beliefs and will strive to eliminate the contradiction.  The motivation is so strong that if the path to reality is closed for some reason, the mind will instead go further into unreality.  There are many examples:
Consider someone who buys an expensive car but discovers that it is not comfortable on long drives. Dissonance exists between their beliefs that they have bought a good car and that a good car should be comfortable. Dissonance could be eliminated by deciding that it does not matter since the car is mainly used for short trips (reducing the importance of the dissonant belief) or focusing on the cars strengths such as safety, appearance, handling (thereby adding more consonant beliefs). The dissonance could also be eliminated by getting rid of the car, but this behavior is a lot harder to achieve than changing beliefs.
Numerous experiments have indicated that this theory is valid and a better predictor of behavior than other theories.  In one early test, researchers asked subjects to rate common objects, and then to pick one to take home among a set they rated equally desirable.  Upon being asked to rate the objects again, they showed a preference for what they had picked.  One explanation is that their minds had created rationalizations to change their views of reality and diminish the mental discomfort of having staked an unsupportable claim.  Interestingly, psychologists have also performed this experiment with capuchin monkeys and obtained the same result.

The application to supernatural beliefs is obvious, and that was the original presentation of the cognitive dissonance theory in Leon Festinger's When Prophecy Fails, which examined doomsday movements such as the Millerites and a contemporary UFO-based group.  A belief that the world will end on a specific day (October 22, 1844 for the Millerites) and the continued existence of the world is a clear contradiction.  Yet those who were in the movement too deeply to renounce it and walk away produced elaborate rationalizations and became more devoted. 

This effect is evident in many human endeavors, both large and small.  Once we make a commitment that is difficult to back out of, yet we encounter a problem, a simple solution is to find a way to believe and then carry on as before.  While easy to spot in others, it is worth taking a moment to consider how cognitive dissonance shapes our own lives.

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