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 — by Len Kennedy, Esq.

The Cowardice of One’s Convictions:
Cognitive Dissonance Theory in a Nutshell

The fool hath said in his heart, “The god I was conditioned to believe in when I was too young to know any better is the one and only true god.”

 — Psalms 14:1, New and Improved

Why do most people presume that — of all the world’s religions — the religion they just happened to be born into is the one true one?  Why do most believers tend to read their Bible (or Koran or other ostensibly sacred text) not for guidance but for reassurance, seeking passages that will justify what they already believe and how they already behave?  Why do most religionists tend to avoid and evade any arguments and evidence that clash with their cherished beliefs — and are therefore somewhat disinclined to buy books with titles like God Must Be Spinning in His Grave?

     I think Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance — while certainly not the full explanation — goes a long way toward accounting for these phenomena.

     According to Festinger’s original formulation,1 cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort one experiences when considering two inconsistent cognitions (e.g., attitudes, beliefs, or bits of knowledge).  The theory has since been refined, and its scope narrowed, to apply only to those situations in which one’s self-concept is involved.2

     For example, most people like to think of themselves as relatively reasonable and intelligent individuals — as evidenced by the common expression “I’m as reasonable and intelligent as the next gink.”

     So if you were to suggest to someone that his religious beliefs were somewhat less than sensible, that would clash with his self-concept, thereby arousing dissonance: His perception of himself as a sensible and rational person would conflict with your suggestion that some of his core beliefs may be neither sensible nor rational.

What Beliefs Are Most Resistant to Change?

Since it’s easier to get a handle on abstract, general theories by observing concrete, specific examples, let’s look at a genuinely fictitious character — a devout Christian named Curt Schnook.

     As with most people, the convictions Schnook is liable to cling to most tenaciously are those that he wants most desperately to believe (e.g., the perennial hope that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God; that after we die, we’re not really dead; and that some kind of divine justice gets meted out in that conjectured afterlife).

     And, not surprisingly, some of the beliefs he’s liable to cleave to most stubbornly are those he shares with his significant others.  And the causality cuts both ways: People not only tend to seek out and associate with those who share their opinions, they also tend to share the opinions of those with whom they associate.

     Schnook’s least changeable beliefs will be those that are foundational, those that are central to how he defines himself (for example, his view of himself as a kind and compassionate Christian).  These and other beliefs become even less malleable when Schnook has publicly committed himself to them (by being an active member in his church, for instance).  Another important factor is how much time, effort, and money he has invested in those beliefs; the more a person suffers to attain a particular goal, the more he’ll cherish that goal — and it’s the rare individual indeed who will admit he’s wasted a huge chunk of his life on an illusion.

     “The theory of cognitive dissonance,” writes Elliot Aronson in The Social Animal, “does not picture people as rational beings; rather, it pictures them as rationalizing beings. . . .  [W]e humans are motivated not so much to be right; rather, we are motivated to believe we are right (and wise, and decent, and good).”3

The Downside of Commitment

As Aronson points out, “The deeper a person’s commitment to an attitude, the greater his or her tendency to reject dissonant evidence.”4

     If someone is committed to a belief, any information contrary to that belief will arouse dissonance, and often the easiest way to decrease that dissonance is to distort the evidence — or to reject it outright.

     “[P]eople are not passive receptacles for the deposition of information.  The manner in which they view and interpret information depends on how deeply they are committed to a particular belief or course of action.”5

     And — as if it isn’t bad enough that he’ll usually just flat out ignore arguments that clash with his beliefs — Schnook will tend to distort those few arguments he actually does hear: He will not only be highly selective when it comes to what information he’ll consider in the first place; he’ll also be highly selective in how he remembers that information, recalling the reasonable arguments that agree with his own position and the unreasonable arguments that agree with the opposing position, while conveniently forgetting the unreasonable arguments that agree with his own position and the reasonable arguments that agree with the opposing position.

Dissonance?  What Dissonance?

People can diminish dissonance in a number of ways, but, as Philip Zimbardo and Michael Leippe say, in The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence, “The overall rule is that people take the path of least resistance.”6

     And what could be easier than simply avoiding dissonance in the first place.  For example, Schnook will tend to steer clear of any magazines and books that are likely to present perspectives that are incompatible with his religious and political views.  And, of course, he’ll tend to shun people whose beliefs and values are different from his.

     To quote Aronson again, “People don’t like to see or hear things that conflict with their deeply held beliefs or wishes.”7

The Diminution of Dissonance

Let’s say Schnook has done something that conflicts with his beliefs — he’s cussed out a Jehovah’s Witness after she had interrupted his dinner to try to sell him a belief system that’s even sillier than the one he has already.  Though the Jehovah’s Witness was rude, Schnook overreacted and behaved even more rudely . . . and now Schnook feels like a schmuck.

     What are some specific ways in which Schnook can go about diminishing his dissonance?

     He can try derogating the victim — thereby reaffirming his self-concept as a kind, decent, and fair man — and he can tell himself that the Jehovah’s Witness just got what she deserved (“After all,” he asks himself, “doesn’t Luke 19:27 tell us there’s a special place in hell reserved for door-to-door solicitors?”).

     He can try lowering the importance of the cognitions — for example, by downplaying the importance of the act (“Jehovah’s Witnesses are used to that sort of thing”).

     He can try adding consonant elements to change the dissonant-to-consonant ratio — e.g., by recalling some of the more virtuous things he’s done in the past, thereby reminding himself that he really is a good person.

     He can seek out fellow believers who he knows will reassure him (“Yes, Curt, I’m pretty sure that was Luke 19:27”).

     On exceedingly rare occasions, however — and only if all else has failed — he may actually change his beliefs (“Dang, Bobbie Jo, I guess I really am a schmuck!”).

The Significance of Social Support

When it comes to Schnook’s most important beliefs — for example, those concerning religion, politics, and sex — the greater the amount of social support he has, the easier it will be for him to maintain those beliefs.  And, surprisingly, he may even find himself in the missionary position, reducing his dissonance by going out and proselytizing — because if he can convince other people that his beliefs are true, then he can better convince himself of their veracity.

     The greater the amount of social support Schnook has for his beliefs, the easier it will be for him to maintain those beliefs, as long as they don’t conflict with his perceived reality.  That’s one of the key reasons traditional religions still persist: They deal mainly with issues that can neither be proven nor disproven empirically.  No matter what arguments you use to bolster your beliefs, religionists will always be able to conjure up some sort of rationalization to justify their beliefs, and there’s nothing you can say or do that will refute their “counterargument.”

     But there’s still hope. . . .

Dissonance That Makes a Difference

If two inconsistent cognitions are both important — and if there’s no easier way — Mr. Schnook may undergo major cognitive restructuring.  Although extremely rare, it is by far the most meaningful mode of dissonance reduction, because it involves such an enormous amount of mental activity.  After all, as mentioned earlier, one of the key findings of dissonance theory is that the harder someone works to attain a goal, the more meaningful and valuable that goal becomes.

Fending Off Foolish Consistencies

We humans are born schnooks.  We all began our life in this world as gullible little munchkins.  But now that we’re adults capable of critical thinking, we’re no longer justified in being so incredibly credulous.

     Probably the best way to guard against ossified beliefs — and to counter our tendency to avoid and evade cognitive dissonance — is the scientific method: Rather than stubbornly clinging to some ready-made dogma, we need to continually challenge our assumptions — and always be ready to change our hypotheses to fit the facts, and not vice versa.

     As Ralph Waldo Emerson’s oft-quoted squib cautions us, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Obviously, Emerson isn’t saying consistency per se is foolish.  After all, we humans wouldn’t have evolved such a strong psychological need for maintaining consistency if it hadn’t helped our ancestors to survive and propagate their genes.

     But when we irrationally demand consistency at all costs — for example, when we refuse to question the potpourri of poppycock, dreck, and schlock that was shoveled into our skulls before we had acquired any capacity for critical thinking — we abandon any hope of evolving as individuals.

     As the art critic Bernard Berenson once quipped, “Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.”

     But perhaps Friedrich Nietzsche said it best, in a maxim he scribbled into one of his notebooks in the late 1880s: “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!!!”


  1. Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957). [back]
  2. Elliot Aronson, “The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance: A Current Perspective.” In Leonard Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 4 (New York: Academic Press, 1969), pp. 1–34. [back]
  3. Elliot Aronson, The Social Animal, 7th ed. (New York: Freeman, 1995), p. 181. [back]
  4. Ibid., p. 183. [back]
  5. Ibid., p. 184. [back]
  6. Philip G. Zimbardo and Michael R. Leippe, The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991), p.118 (Italics in original). [back]
  7. Aronson, The Social Animal, p. 185. [back]

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