Introducing Cognitive Dissonance

This article is meant to introduce the concept of Cognitive Dissonance and how it relates to Christianity.
Cognitive Dissonance is a term in psychology that describes the feeling of tension experienced by a person when they hold two conflicting beliefs. When this happens to a person they feel uncomfortable and they start trying to figure out a way to reconcile the beliefs so they don't seem to conflict anymore and / or the discomfort is relieved. Dissonance is more likely to happen if the major idea is about who we are. To better explain this concept some examples of situations that introduce cognitive dissonance follow.

- People who think they are smart, moral or competent and they make a mistake that would indicate otherwise.
- People with addictions that know the behavior is harmful but want to continue to do it anyway, such as smokers, overeaters, compulsive gamblers, alcoholics
- People that are genetically disposed to Mental Illness have difficulty in reconciling their actions with their conscience
- People that cheat on or find ways to reduce their taxes either unintentionally or intentionally.
- People that make excuses for the 'embarrassing' or trouble-making member of the family.
- People that automatically start 'playing the blame game' and pointing fingers.
- Politicians, in fact there is a book out on this right now that is referenced at the end of this article.
- Subordinates that have to justify enforcing policies they don't support, in business, government, military, etc
- Salespeople that have to sell a product they don't particularly care about, but have a need to exaggerate its value to the customer
- Professional people that have made a mistake that impacts their self image, such as a prosecuting attorney that wrongly convicts someone who is subsequently shown through something such as DNA evidence to be innocent. The attorney doesn't want to believe they have made this kind of mistake.
- People that want to believe in things that are not supported by strong evidence such as Superstitions, UFO's, Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster, Ghosts, Psychic phenomena, faith healing, etc
- People that have to reconcile why they hold a certain Religious belief rather than another
- People that have to reconcile events in their religion that they do not like, such as the many anecdotes in the Old Testament.
- People that have to reconcile why an all powerful and loving god would create the need to permit so much apparently needless suffering in the world.
- People that have to reconcile why Jesus mother and family thought he was crazy as described in Mark.
- People that have to reconcile why an all powerful loving God uses principles that are shown in day to day life to be flawed.

Once you understand the concept of Cognitive Dissonance and Self-Justification, you can see examples of it literally hour to hour, and especially in Movies and in TV where authors have to introduce conflict as quickly as possible to set the premise and give the characters something to do. It seems to be a mechanism, or drive related to self-preservation. The brain is wired for self-justification. It has been identified in every major culture. It shows up in fmri brain scans. Drew Weston showed that when a person is experiencing dissonance, the thought processes shut down and when the subject starts reducing dissonance the brain centers that show pleasure become activated. The problem is that it is a means of utilizing bias and ignoring evidence that prevents finding the truth or resolution of a problem. Once a person is experiencing Cognitive Dissonance it is very difficult for another person to interrupt the process. Attempts by another person to interrupt the process will result in the intensifying of the process and the resolve of the person experiencing dissonance to continue attempting to reconcile it.

An episode in a series of Psychology videos explains bias and cognitive dissonance very well. Follow this link Part 11: Judgement and decision making. Registration is free to watch but you will have to create an account and I recommend it as 'safe' because i haven't received any spam since i did.

Of the many things the video talks about is a seminal experiment by Leon Festinger and Carl Smith.
Leon Festinger conducted one of the first experiments to introduce conditions that reliably induce dissonance. In the experiment the subjects were told to perform boring tasks. Afterwards they were given the opportunity to receive payment if they could influence others to participate in the experiment. Some subjects were given a twenty dollar payment, others only a one dollar payment and some were not given the offer. When asked to rate the tasks, the group that was paid one dollar rated them more highly than the group that was paid twenty. The group that was paid twenty dollars had an obvious external justification fortheir behavior, but those that were paid less had to internalize it. The researches theorized that the one dollar group did not believe they had sufficient justification to lie about the tasks so they were forced to changetheir attitude to relieve the stress. The process allowed the subjects to genuinely believe the tasks were enjoyable. Here is a link to the original paper.

Another similar experiment was done by Elliot Aronson where two groups were picked to join an organization with a initiation tasks. The organization turned out to be boring and uninteresting, but those that had the harder initiation felt more loyalty to it than those that had the easy initiation.

Leon Festinger summed it up in the video as "we come to love what we suffer for".

Carol Tarvis and Elliot Arronson (the researcher noted above) wrote a book on this subject called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs
In an interview with Carol Tarvis on Point of Inquiry, the Podcast of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry she was asked if Cognitive Dissonance is manifested in religious belief and the following summarizes her response.

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 cancelled 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. It is described in his book
The Lucifer Effect. It made me think about slavery, the crusades, Old Testament atrocities and William Lane Craigs defense of killing pregnant mothers with a sword. (thanks Steven Carr!)

I suffered severely from dissonance and when I decided to subject my religious beliefs to the same type of criteria and scrutiny that I used for my day to day life, I discovered that I could no longer hold a belief in God. I Know that it is likely that I am not going to convince any christian that there is no God, but what I can do is, through the use of rational discussion, point out the weakness in their arguments and principles that their arguments depend on to introduce cognitive dissonance in their mind.

People use different criteria for reasoning based on the context of the situation. They are called Spheres when the the concept is applied to a group and "compartmentalizing" when applied to an individual. This concept is discussed in Stephen Toulmins "Introduction to Reasoning" and Richard D. Reinke and Malcom O. Sillars "Argumentation and Critical Decision Making". The difference in the spheres and compartments can be seen very well when comparing Scientific reasoning, Legal Reasoning, Religious Reasoning, Artistic Reasoning, and Business Reasoning. I am sure these are not all the spheres that can be identified but they are useful for this discussion. The difference between them is the weight that each places on types of evidence and principle. And often one type of reasoning taken out of context and applied in another sphere or compartment breaks down. For example, the type of anecdotal evidence used in Legal reasoning would break down when applied to science, just as Religious witness testimony breaks down when applied to Legal Reasoning. These facts insulate poor reasoning and can be used to Justify poor conclusions. However, when comparing the principles that conclusions depend on, it is not so easy to justify poor conclusions. For example, the concept of evidence is fundamental to all the types of reasoning but the type of evidence is not. However, if we say the type of evidence needed to justify a Christian belief is not sufficient to justify a Muslim, Hindu, Jewish (etc) then the principle breaks down and we can say the conclusion is flawed.

If you watch this blog long enough you can see people wrestling with this concept as illustrated here in this recent exchange between me and a commenter. We were talking 'embarrassing moments' in the bible and whether or not they are useful to build a case for authenticity. The argument goes that by including the 'embarrassing moments' in the bible it adds authenticity to it.

I wouldn't even add it [argument for authenticity from embarrassing moments] to my portfolio to make a cumulative case. The reason why is someone like me would turn it around and point out, like I did in my first post, that in the beginning, Jesus as god was not the consensus. These things put in there were not threatening to that idea. Over time they became threatening. I would turn this argument around and say that it better supports Jesus lack of divinity because the anecdotes are not consistent with what should be the case if a god walked the earth, and if anyone should know it would be his mother. It better supports as ed points out that the further away from the event the larger his divinity grew which is more consistent with the creation of a legend than historical authenticity.

I would ad it [argument for authenticity from embarrassing moments] considering that it contributes in a positive way, even if it is neither necessary nor necessarily sufficient to make a case. Historical inquiry demands that I take it into consideration. The alternatives, while plausible, are not very strong in my opinion since they argue from silence and are based on hypotheticals.

What I want to point out is that while he asserts that the principle i am using to build my case is flawed he is happy to use it for his argument. Namely that the alternatives that I am using are not very strong and based on hypotheticals. His argument was too. And I claim his are based on them to a much larger degree since I have precedent on my side. In any case, I didn't use this example to declare that I am right, I simply used it as the most recent example of cognitive dissonance that I have experienced. If you watch this blog day to day, you see it almost every day.

The truth will stand up to scrutiny and the truth will set you free. People just have to decide to break down the walls between those compartments and identify and eliminate sources of bias because they will not be convinced by anyone otherwise.

REFERENCES not all inclusive, refer to the body of the article for more.

* 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
* Stanford Prison Experiment
* The Lucifer Effect

Solomon Asch conformity experiments
* Solomon Asche
* Conformity Experiments
* YouTube video

Drew Weston
* Discussion of his experiment
* His book "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation"