“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.
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