Cognitive Dissonance and the Problem of Evil

This article is a summary of a portion of an interview with Social Psychologist Carol Tavris on Point of Inquiry, the Podcast of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry. She and Social Psychologist Elliot Aronson are the authors of a book on Cognitive Dissonance called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs and how it affects us in everyday life. It covers the manifestation of Cognitive Dissonance in prosecuting attorneys, law enforcement officials, politicians, smokers etc. In the interview she was asked if Cognitive Dissonance is manifested in religious belief and this article summarizes her response.

In the beginning of the interview she talks about characteristics of Cognitive Dissonance and how it manifests itself in Attorneys that have discovered they have wrongly prosecuted someone, law enforcement officials that are trained to believe the person being questioned is just as good as guilty thereby justifying whatever means necessary to elicit a confession, and politicians that support policy that is shown over time to be wrong but will not change their position. She uses the resulting situation of the Iraq War and the position of the Bush Administration as an example of a manifestation of Cognitive Dissonance.

Q: There are religious people that don't demand proof for their beliefs, is this a way of relieving their cognitive dissonance?

A: The more important a particular belief is to us the more strongly we will ignore or reject evidence suggesting we are wrong. Religion is central to what gives many people meaning and purpose in life. This type of belief will be defended at all costs. Examples of dis-confirming evidence creating Cognitive Dissonance are Evolution, the Holocaust and disasters.
Most religious people are not threatened by evolution. They find a way to fit it into their beliefs, but some cannot fit it into their beliefs and they will go to great lengths to try to refute the dis-confirming evidence.
How do Jews deal with the Holocaust? The Jews believe they are the chosen people, and god is looking after them. How could a good loving god have permitted genocide? Students of Cognitive Dissonance Theory would predict that people would become more religious and their faith would be strengthened. What most people do is not lose their faith in God but reduce the dissonance by saying God is responsible for the Good in the world, human beings are responsible for the Evil or God is testing faith. The Christian response to the question of how Jesus could permit enormous suffering to happen is to believe that it is to test faith. Anything that is not consonant with a belief in God is reinterpreted to make it consonant. For example after a terrible disaster the survivors will say something like "god was looking after me" but discounting the fact that God was not looking out for other people that died.

Another interesting interview related to cognitive dissonance is from the radio show "All in the Mind". They interviewed Phillip Zambardo, the lead researcher involved with the Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiment had to be canceled because it got out of control. The participants started self-justifying doing terrible things to each other and it had to be stopped. He was the expert witness for the defendants in the Abu Ghraib trial, explaining how situational factors can make good people do bad things using cognitive dissonance to self-justify their actions. He talks about it in his book The Lucifer Effect.

It made me think about slavery, the crusades, Old Testament atrocities and Craigs defense of killing pregnant mothers with a sword. (thanks Steven Carr!)

Point of Inquiry podcast with Carol Tavris interview.

Science Friday podcast interview with Elliot Aronson

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs

Wikipedia on Cognitive Dissonance

All in the Mind

Stanford Prison Experiment

The Lucifer Effect