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Cognitive dissonance & why it matters for our futures

An essay for Beyond Return - Don’t let the absence of good options available to you, prevent you from dreaming better dreams.

Published onMay 05, 2022
Cognitive dissonance & why it matters for our futures

We have built a society in which it is almost impossible to make individual choices that are ethical and not harmful. Don’t let the dissonance between what you believe is right and what options are available to you, shrink your idealistic hopes for the future.

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.” (Festinger et al., 1956)

When was the last time you changed your deeply held beliefs about something?

In all likelihood this will be a hard question to answer because we hold on dearly to our beliefs and opinions. Why is it that so often people defend their opinions and beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence that their ideas and views are totally incorrect? The theory of cognitive dissonance (the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, or or when you believe one thing but act in a contradictory way) was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. It is thought to be one reason why we find it hard to change our minds. As a recent piece in the Atlantic puts it; There are facts, and there are beliefs, and there are things you want so badly to believe that they become as facts to you.

The theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that inconsistency between two cognitions creates an aversive state similar to hunger or thirst that gives rise to a motivation to reduce the inconsistency and regain homeostasis. In this way, dissonance has drive-like properties, motivating people to seek its reduction. In the brain, recent work has demonstrated a causal relationship between activity in the posterior medial frontal cortex, (Izuma & Murayama, 2019) an area thought to be involved in the avoidance of aversive outcomes. The group showed that this area of the brain is active in tasks which induce cognitive dissonance, but crucially for the causal relationship, that using transcranial magnetic stimulation to reduce activity in this neural region, they reduced attitude changes in their participants as well as their desire to create internal consistency (Izuma et al., 2015). This suggests that there are ways to change our desire for internal consistency, without changing our beliefs. Similarly, studies have down that targeting other areas involved in the experience of cognitive dissonance such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex reduces the extent to which participants attempted to rationalize their beliefs following the induction of cognitive dissonance.

  1. We change our behavior or belief so that it’s congruent with the new information. For example, “I won’t fly for vacations because fossil fuels are bad for the environment”

  2. We justify our behavior or belief by changing the conflicting cognition. For example, “I'm allowed to fly once in a while"

  3. We justify our behavior or their belief by adding new cognitions. For instance, "I’ll purchase a carbon offset to make peace with it"

  4. We ignore or deny information that conflicts with their existing beliefs. For example, “Flying doesn’t really make a difference to fossil fuel emissions."

Which of these have you used in your own life, and are you even paying attention? I have been keeping a diary of moments of cognitive dissonance, in an attempt to pay attention to which of the above strategies I am deploying in order to maintain internal coherence. Unfortunately, “when there is a conflict between our attitudes and our behavior, we tend to change our attitudes to make them consistent with our behavior’ rather than change our behavior to make it consistent with our attitudes.”

This phenomenon, known as ‘motivated reasoning’, refers to the ways in which we seek out agreeable information, we are more open to integrating and remembering information that congruent perspectives, and at the same time we ignore, devalue and forget contradictory information (Hart et al., 2009). This is a massively conservatising effect, that serves to anchor our beliefs & attitudes towards our actions.

Why is this important

Are you of the opinion that your actions are a reflection of your attitudes and values? It is commonly assumed that behavior follows from attitudes, however experiments into cognitive dissonance have revealed that the opposite can be true - that in fact, experimental induction of cognitive dissonance can result in situations where our behavior changes our attitudes, opinions and beliefs. This is known as the induced compliance effect (Festinger and Carlsmith, 1959).

Rejecting, rationalizing, or avoiding information that conflicts with our beliefs can lead us to make poor decisions. This is because the information is not rejected because it is false but because it makes us uncomfortable. Information that is both true and useful can often have this effect. We need then, to be able to both accept that our decisions and actions may fall short of our values, without this changing our values.

“We build counterpower simultaneously to end capitalism and to survive within it whilst we fight against it; to survive subjectively as well as materially.” Futures and Fictions (p. 157).

The importance of understanding the negative psychological and behavioral impacts of cognitive dissonance relate to another phenomenon, known as moral injury. Moral injury describes the long-lasting psychological, biological, spiritual, behavioral and social damage to an individual after experiencing morally injurious events, which include “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations” (Litz et al., 2009, Drescher et al., 2011). First described in military encounters, this may happen because of orders from above deference to an authority, as a matter of personal decision, or both.

Despite moral injury primarily being discussed in relation to psychological damage sustained in combat, it pertains to many daily scenarios. It is distinct from PTSD, whereby the primary concern is about safety; in sustaining moral injury the fundamental damage done is to a sense of trust. Many professions are confronted with regular terrible moral tensions and dilemmas, as are everyday people living everyday lives. For many, avoidance and shutting down in the go to short term strategy for dealing with these situations, however it is through that longer term, this can lead to reduced empathy, emotional numbing, dehumanization and demoralization.

How moral injury relates to cognitive dissonance is unclear. It seems that these must at least be overlapping concepts, but in the case of moral injury at least, it can occur not only from one’s own actions being at odds with ones’s values, but also when exposed to that in others. It seems then that moral injury often occurs when one is forced to operate outside of one’s values, or is exposed to that, so there is some element of loss of self determination at play. Whereas cognitive dissonance appears to be when self determined behaviors are mismatched with one’s own ideals.

Pan & Dai (Pan & DAI, 2022) describe that self-oriented events where one’s own actions are the source of betrayal are more likely to result in negative internal emotions and cognitions such as guilt and shame, as well as a lack of self forgiveness), whereas other-oriented events such as being exposed to act of violence, injustice, or betrayal by a trusted person, are associated with negative external cognitions such as anger, loss of trust, inability to forgive.

Shay describes that moral injury can occur when one is exposed to a betrayal of what is right and just by a someone in a position of legitimate authority, when in the context of a high-stakes situation: “The term moral injury [..] has been used in two related, but distinct, senses; differing mainly in the “who” of moral agency. Moral injury is present when there has been (a) a betrayal of “what’s right”; (b) either by a person in legitimate authority (my definition), or by one’s self—“I did it” (Litz et al., 2009); (c) in a high stakes situation. Both forms of moral injury impair the capacity for trust and elevate despair, suicidality, and interpersonal violence. They deteriorate character.”

Thus, the issue of collective moral injury then — ‘a speculation about the effect of ongoing, unrelenting moral injury on the body politic’ as well as how cognitive dissonance and how we manage these two experiences is of fundamental importance to consider. As Weintrobe et al put it: “The logic of living in a neoliberal economy conflicts with many peoples’ sense of moral decency. Neoliberal economic framing means that life is generally lived in ways that harm the planet, people and animals. To know at a feeling level that one has participated exposes one to moral injury, a violation of what is right and fair. Participating in the neoliberal economy generates conflict between more self-serving and more socially responsible values” (Weintrobe, 2020)

Bridging the personal and the political

What happens, if we all are collectively shifting our values and beliefs to match our suboptimal behavior? The impact of this on society could be extreme. We live in a society where it is almost impossible to make ethical decisions. Almost everything we do contributes to some damaging system, paying taxes that fund wars, buying food that contributes to soil depletion, needing vacations in far off lands in order to recover from extractive work responsibilities, on and on. “How does moral injury change someone? It deteriorates their character; their ideals, ambitions and attachments begin to change and shrink. Both flavors of moral injury impair and sometimes destroy the capacity for trust. When social trust is destroyed, it is replaced by the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation and humiliation from others.” (Shay, 2014)). We must then find ways to ensure that when faced with internal dissonance between your actions and your beliefs, that we can just choose to own that our actions are suboptimal, without shrinking our beliefs to match our suboptimal actions. We can acknowledge that we live in a world where it is hard to make consumer choices that do not contribute to global damage, without feeling powerless about positive change.

Take home - Don’t let the absence of good options available to you, prevent you from dreaming better dreams.

In your personal life, you might find that there are beliefs you hold so closely that you will adopt your behavior to match them. But what does this mean for society? In a recent study which compared representative British and American samples, they found that whilst both groups prefered a progressive future compared to a ‘return to normal’ scenario, people considered the latter more likely, and incorrectly believe that others favor the progressive scenarios less, and the ‘return to normal’ scenarios more than reality.

The divergence between what people want and what they think others want represents an instance of pluralistic ignorance, which arises when public discourse is not reflecting people’s actual opinions. Publicizing public opinion is thus crucial to facilitate a future with broad support. In additional open-ended items, participants cited working from home, reduced commuting, and a collective sense of civility as worth retaining post pandemic.”(Lewandowsky et al., 2021) Findings such as these casts a sense that what we believe is possible, and what we (often incorrectly) believe others to want can be a factor in our own choices and beliefs.

Considering the more widespread effects of cognitive dissonance raises some concerns for academia and political society; “If researchers tend to analyze information in a way that supports conclusions that are consistent with their own beliefs, then cognitive dissonance may threaten the objective methodology that underpins much of academia today.”

As the decision lab writes: “The effectiveness of social causes is also threatened by cognitive dissonance. The change they often call for requires many people to change their existing beliefs and behavior. This is not possible if a significant portion of us do not consider evidence that conflicts with the beliefs or behaviors these causes seek to alter. Environmentalism and its associated climate change action movements are a good example. Most of us care for nature and want to preserve it. But the evidence championed by these movements often indicates that we aren’t doing enough as individuals. Many of us are part of the problem. Such evidence shows us that our behaviors are often at odds with our beliefs.

Seeing this contradiction, many of us respond by either rationalizing our behaviors, rejecting environmentalism and the evidence it relies on, or adopting the belief that our individual actions have a negligible effect on the environment. This prevents the widespread behavioral change many environmental causes call for.”

What can be done to ensure that cognitive dissonance in a dystopian society doesn’t shrink our hopes and dreams for a more just future?

Cognitive dissonance serves an important purpose, to allow us to reduce internal stress and maintain a cohesive identity. On the other hand, avoidance of dissonance may prevent us from considering new information and consequently, from changing harmful behaviors. What is to be done with this (forgive the reach) dissonant information?

If our identities are modulated by imperfect actions made in the face of limited sets of ethical choices, how can we forge identities that help us get to the future that we are seeking, and not remain justifying the present that we have inherited?

I argue here that we need to forge forms of selfhood and identity that are not vulnerable to being altered by the inevitable experience of dissonance, but are resilient to challenge, and instead can allow us to make choices based on what is available to us, without altering our dreams for the future. Such that instead of making the internal argument - “I am flying to Hawaii for my holiday, but it won’t make a difference to fossil fuel emissions / ”, we can say “I am flying to hawaii for my holiday because I really want to, but I realize this is suboptimal and that the world that we are striving for requires us to find forms of transport that are carbon neutral”.

Conclusion & Speculative Futures - Forging a sense of self that is future oriented

Crossan et al. (Crossan et al., 2013) describe a virtue-based model of ethical decision-making in which they claim that a virtue-based orientation may be a means of resilience for individuals who are trying to navigate between high situational pressures and demands for ethical behavior.

Laycraft (Laycraft, 2020) describes Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration theory as a ‘Future-Oriented Psychology’. Dabrowski’s theory stresses the vital function of “emotional turbulence” in the transition from the lower to the higher levels of psychological development. Dabrowski argues that many symptoms observed in society - anxiety, obsessions, depression - are (or can be) fuel for personal growth and the development of a personality, into a personality ideal; the optimal and most nobel version of a person, that is ‘specified by themselves with characteristics that all would recognize as noble and benefiting the greater good’. In this model, positive disintegration refers to a state in which the personality of “an individual is transitioning from being based on values given by biological factors (the need to eat, seek shelter, and reproduce) and by social factors (gaining social standing, belonging to a social group whose values are adopted without critical scrutiny) toward self-determined values geared toward the greater good.”

Similarly, exposure to stress can be associated with post-traumatic growth (Westphal & Bonanno, 2007), something estimated to occur for about half to two-thirds of trauma survivors. Moral tension can provoke positive reactions, serving as motivation to seek change, and to moral and emotional development. However this appears to be more likely if one experiences guilt, rather than shame.

Donna Haraway reminds us -- ‘We – all of us on Terra – live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times. The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response…. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places…. Staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or Edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings. (Haraway, 2016)

Here I have argued that what is needed today is a combination of recognising that our actions will often fall short of our values, and that we need ways of sitting with the trouble, that do not lead us to shrink our values to match what we are capable of. That our cultural narratives of avoiding and moving away from psychological discomfort, may lead us to shrink our worlds to increasingly small mental safe havens that result in the self being a shrinking enclosure. That instead we need to address moral injuries with future oriented forms of psychologies and approaches, such that we can grow out of stress and discomfort, rather than being shaped by, a mere reaction to and limited by the dissonance that comes with being a human being in today's world.

References

Crossan, M., Mazutis, D., & Seijts, G. (2013). In search of virtue: The role of virtues, values and character strengths in ethical decision making. Journal of Business Ethics, 113(4), 567–581.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When prophecy fails. (pp. vii, 257). University of Minnesota Press.

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Hart, W., Albarracín, D., Eagly, A. H., Brechan, I., Lindberg, M. J., & Merrill, L. (2009). Feeling validated versus being correct: A meta-analysis of selective exposure to information. Psychological Bulletin, 135(4), 555–588.

Izuma, K., Akula, S., Murayama, K., Wu, D.-A., Iacoboni, M., & Adolphs, R. (2015). A causal role for posterior medial frontal cortex in choice-induced preference change. The Journal of Neuroscience : The Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 35(8), 3598–3606.

Laycraft, K. C. (2020). The Theory of Positive Disintegration as Future-Oriented Psychology. Annals of Cognitive Science, 4(1), 118–126.

Lewandowsky, S., Facer, K., & Ecker, U. K. H. (2021). Losses, hopes, and expectations for sustainable futures after COVID. Humanities & Social Sciences Communications, 8(1), 296.

Litz, B. T., Stein, N., Delaney, E., Lebowitz, L., Nash, W. P., Silva, C., & Maguen, S. (2009). Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and intervention strategy. Clinical Psychology Review, 29(8), 695–706.

Pan, A., & DAI, Y. (2022). Moral injury: A review from the perspective of psychology. Advances in Psychological Science, 30(1), 168–178.

Shay, J. (2014). Moral injury. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 31(2), 182–191.

Weintrobe, S. (2020). Moral injury, the culture of uncare and the climate bubble. Journal of Social Work Practice, 34(4), 351–362.

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