You are here
Cognitive dissonance and social change: what can we learn?

Cognitive dissonance and social change: what can we learn?

The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try and reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance” (Leo Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance).

In 1957, Leo Festinger introduced Cognitive Dissonance Theory to the world. This theory states that when someone holds two conflicting cognitions, he or she will act to reduce this state of discomfort in one of three ways. Let’s say I was to find out that bike riding is dangerous for my health. I could either (a) change cognitions to make it more compatible to my mindset (eg dismiss this new information), (b) add new cognitions to bridge the gap between existing cognitions (eg look for new information that states that driving a car is more dangerous than riding a bike), or (c) change my behaviour (eg stop riding my bike). With any of the three methods, the stronger the feeling of dissonance (ie discomfort), the more motivated I am to reduce it.

Festinger’s theory has been around for a while now, and not surprisingly has had quite a few criticisms and revisions over the years, but the underlying thread holds true. When we come across a piece of information that shakes our belief system, we actively try to reduce this discomfort.

New research has backed up this theory. In a series of experiments, participants were instructed to convince others of their own opinion on a particular topic. These topics ranged from animal testing, food choices and the merits of Apple products. The researchers then used different tricks to lower the confidence of those doing the convincing, such as making them write with their non-dominant hand (interestingly enough, previous research has shown that people are less confident in what they are writing when using their non-preferred hand). They also used other tricks such as making the subjects think about times when they felt doubtful, or telling them that the person being convinced was opposed to what they were going to say, before they had even started talking. These situations all lead to the subject becoming more doubtful in their beliefs. The researchers discovered that when people were placed in positions of doubt, they were more likely to be stronger and passionate advocates. In other words, when our beliefs are shaken by external factors, we become more adamant and are more likely to put greater effort into persuading others.

Perhaps this explains why people who still don’t believe in climate change are so steadfast in their beliefs. As George Monbiot writes “To dismiss an entire canon of science on the basis of either no evidence or evidence that has already been debunked is to evince an astonishing level of self-belief. It suggests that, by instinct or by birth, you know more about this subject than the thousands of intelligent people who have spent their lives working on it.”

Perhaps it explains how we can live in a world where the hegemonic nation’s conservative party has 47 out of 48 Senate candidates don’t believe in man-made climate change. (As a depressing side note, the one Republican who did believe in climate change, Mike Castle of Delaware, was recently defeated by staunch anti-masturbation campaigner Christine O’Donnell in the GOP’s Senate primary.)

Looking outward, there are many examples of people who are demonstrating the very principles of cognitive dissonance, and using strategy (a) or (b) to reject seemingly common sense information. But what about looking inward?

One of the most common phrases I hear bandied about among people I talk to is “preaching to the converted”. You could relate this concern directly to this site. Who are the people that are likely to read it, or to tell their friends about it? What type of person would be interested in its content? On a wider level, are we simply reinforcing our own views about development and social change, or do we really think we can change anyone’s opinion?

I’m not sure what the answer is to these questions, but I do believe that acknowledging how people react to cognitive dissonance helps us to understand “preaching” about social change.

A friend of mine recently moved into an apartment with a few other people, and she was concerned that they weren’t as energy conservative as she is. She was in a bit of a dilemma. Should she look to live with people who held similar views about saving energy, or should she try and live with people with a more varied mindset, and hope to set a good example so that they might also start turning off lights or taking shorter showers? As she asked my advice, I thought about how social networking sites in the US are now used to find perfect matches for college roommates based on a set of criteria. You can define, down to preferred bedprints, how you want your roommate to turn out.

My advice to her was simple. If she could tolerate living with people who were of a different mindset, and they didn’t infuriate her to the point of insanity, she should go for that option. The reason behind this logic is that I don’t believe that living in a bubble, even if it is a pleasant, reinforcing bubble, is ever a good way to live. We need a diversity of opinions and beliefs around us to keep us mentally healthy. Healthy discussion and critical discourse are good things.

But where does that leave us as far as Festinger’s notion of cognitive dissonance is concerned? If we truly believe in social change and (as cliched as it sounds) making the world a better place, then we need to be aware of how people react to views that conflict with their own belief set. We all know the feeling when someone approaches us on the street to sell us something, whether it is a product or a religion, that we don’t believe in. The louder and more aggressive the person is, the more likely we are to dig our heels in and stand our ground, or retaliate. However, as agents of development, or social change, we want to see people around us living lives that are ethical and that benefit the world as a whole. So, just like my friend with her flatmates, I think we need to take a non-aggressive approach, and hope that people will eventually give in to common sense and see that it is possible to make choices in life ethically.

The following two tabs change content below.

Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder & Board Member at WhyDev
Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for the past 3 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed an MA in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, and studied Mandarin in Beijing. He is an obsessed barefoot runner and connoisseur of durian.

Related posts

4 thoughts on “Cognitive dissonance and social change: what can we learn?

  1. This is my favourite example of cognitive dissonance:

    In 1997, thirty-nine members of the Heavens Gate, an obscure religious cult, were found dead in a luxury estate in Rancho Santa Fe California – participants in a mass suicide. Several weeks earlier, a few members of the cult had walked into a specialty store and purchased an expensive, high-powered telescope so that they might get a clear view of the Hale Bopp Comet and spaceship they fervently believed that was traveling behind it. Their belief was that, when the comet got close to earth, it was time to rid themselves of "earthly containers" (their bodies) by killing themselves so that their essence could be picked up by the spaceship. A few days after buying the telescope, they came back to the store, returned the telescope, and politely asked for their money back. When the store manager asked them if they had had a problem with the scope, they indicated that it was defective: “We found the comet all right, but we couldn't find the spaceship that is following it.”

  2. Great post!

    This is exactly why I try to seek out sources of thought that differ from mine. For example, I listen to a lot of conservative radio. It is not only entertaining, but makes me think of the genesis of thoughts with which I disagree and work on why I oppose the views. It can become easy to be entrenched within the bubble of comfort when looking at thought. I will admit that I have a tough time when meeting cognitive dissonance, but actively seeking situations where it may occur has helped.

    Now, how do we reach out to others and challenge their beliefs about aid and development in a way that mitigates such strong reactions and defensive positions (which I do not claim to be above)?

    1. wmyeoh

      That's really cool Tom. I don't think many people (myself included) could claim to be as open minded as that. Really admirable.

      My personal opinion is that I am unlikely to be able to change someone's view on an issue in a 180 degree fashion. If they are strongly committed to a certain opinion, then it's unlikely that any level of logic or reason will change their mind. That's not to say that you should give up. Gandhi was a bit believer in appealing to the innate decency of people regardless of the situation, because he believed that ultimately people would make the "correct" decision, as human beings are ultimately good. Certainly he was an advocate in the softer approach I mentioned above. I think we work at people's misconceptions bit by bit, and hopefully these small steps will amount to a larger change in the long run.

    2. Brendan Rigby

      I agree Tom, but as with Weh, I also could not claim to be that open-minded. The phrase and characteristic of being 'open-minded' is somewhat of a pop-psyhc catch-phrase. 'You need to be more open-minded'. Easier said than done. I would like to think of myself as open-minded, but am probably not. My self-perception is misleading. I tend to avoid listening to conservative voices, rather than engaging with them. I am dismissive of conservative views, tending to enjoy Jon Stewert and Stephen Colberts' comedic satire and jabs at media that voice such. To practice open-mindedness, we need to first look within at ourselves; at our own prejudices, our own sense of self and what we cling to. To stronger sense of a 'self' we have, the more difficult it is to let go of entrenched thoughts, attitudes and beliefs.

      In regards to changning another's belief, I think the crux of this issue is the gulf between attitude and behaviour. Although you may change a person's attitude, this does not necessarily result in a change of behaviour. Furthermore, the reasons for an attitude shift can be multi-faceted: social, economic, pragmatic, relational. You can convince me that coffee is a great drink and brew, and I can change my attitude towards coffee based on your argument or on how relationship. However, this does not mean that I will begin to drink coffee regularly. Often, and this starts when we are children and throughout our education, a change of behaviour requires an incentive. We have become convinced that human bevhaviour is best regulated through incentives, rewards and punishment. Largely thanks to behavioural psyhcologists such as Skinner who tested and evolved their theories of behaviourism with animals (rats, dogs). School, sport, work – are all largely controlled through inventives.

      So, perhaps we need incentives? Or other forms of engagement that will enable a person to critically reflect on their self (beliefs, ethics, biases, etc.), the information given to them, and their environment before making a decision? This engagement is meant to be developed during our schooling years, but often gets pasted over by a competitive system that rewards and punishes.

Comments are closed.