Cognitive Dissonance

What is cognitive dissonance? What are the ways in which we cope with such a dissonance in our daily lives? Let's find out.
Ever faced with a situation where what you thought was right didn't synchronize with what is traditionally considered as right? I'll give you a simple, regular workplace situation as an example of cognitive dissonance. It is a lex non scripta of the workplace that the boss is always right - he is a creature that has to be worshiped and expressly agreed with despite your individual reservations regarding his/her opinions and decisions. In such a situation, when an occasion arises where your intellect and better judgment doesn't agree with your boss's decisions and dictates, there are only two options from which you can choose to get rid of this psychological dissonance - you either kill your inner voice and adapt, meaning do what others have been doing till date by blindly agreeing with the higher authority or offer resistance and voice your opinion regarding such decision which may result in interpersonal discord, even termination of your job!

It becomes necessary to choose an option because as humans, we cannot possibly live with a conflict and must restore synchrony by either accepting and adapting our beliefs and thoughts to the situation at hand or forcibly try to turn the situation the way we desire it to be. This conflict of thoughts and beliefs is what the subject of cognitive dissonance deals with.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

This phenomenon is covered under the purview of cognitive psychology. This theory pertaining to human psychology states that we humans feel ill at ease on having two conflicting opinions in our minds at the same time. When it comes to the belief system of our minds, it is ready to accept either variable a or variable b but the idea of a equation fusing both beliefs, say an a+b situation perplexes it to no end. The idea of duality often faces opposition - both from the human mind as well as the human society as a whole. Don't believe me? Well, take a look at the social status of hermaphrodites in the human society and you'll see what I mean. Although the level of tolerance for such individuals in mainstream society has risen considerably since medieval times, there is still a latent, psychologically deep-rooted reluctance to accept such individuals as part of the societal mainstream. The idea that both male and female organs and characteristics exist in one body perplexes and repels the singularity-oriented heterogeneous populace!

Coming back to the subject in question, this theory rests upon four foundational paradigms. Let's look at each paradigm a little closely.

Paradigm of Belief Dis-confirmation: This paradigm explains the phenomenon of discord between the beliefs of people with facts or information at hand. Such a dissonance can be put to rest by either changing one's beliefs to accept the facts at hand or by rejecting the facts and trying to persuade others to do the same. Come to think of it, the Roman inquisition against Galileo was propelled by the belief dis-confirmation paradigm of the Roman society in those times!

Paradigm of Free Choice: When given two options - say A and B - to choose between, there may be certain things about the rejected option, B, that the decision-maker may be positively inclined towards but the fact that he/she chose the other option, A, above B creates a discord in his/her mind and he/she ends up imposing complete rejection upon B despite his inner appreciation of certain features of B. Such an imposed dislike takes place to reduce confusion and assist in quick decision-making where only one option must be chosen in the end. If such a complete, deliberate rejection is not imposed, the decision-maker may linger to-and-fro between the two options and keep procrastinating.

Paradigm of Induced Compliance: When compliance of a task is imposed upon two or more groups of people the non conformation of which is expressed to invite penalty or prosecution, the group who is threatened with a lesser degree of penalty or prosecution is more likely to comply with the task and orders than those treated with a higher degree on removal of the threat. This happens because the mildly threatened group feels that since they did not do it even when they had very little to lose, they would contradict themselves if they did it even after the threat has been lifted. These people have very limited justification for non-compliance, other than convincing themselves and others that not complying is really not worth it. This was proved by an experiment conducted by social psychologists, Leon Festinger and Merrill Carlsmith, in 1959.

Paradigm of Effort Justification: This paradigm states that when a person undertakes to perform an undesirable action for achieving a desired result, the dissonance between the desirability of the end result and the undesirability of the tasks performed for achieving it is usually synchronized by exaggerating and psychologically catapulting the value and importance of the end result. The magnitude of such exaggeration depends upon the level of undesirability of the task performed for the attainment of the goal - the more unpleasant the task, the more pleasant the achievable is deemed.

Two very prominent examples of this theory can be quoted by way of the Ben Franklin Effect and Aesop's fable of The Fox and the Grapes. In case of the Ben Franklin effect, the fact that when you get your opponent to do you a mild favor for you means that you create a dissonance in his mind between dislike for you and the favor he just did. To set such a discord at rest, your opponent ultimately starts believing that he actually likes you and would be more likely to do you a favor again in future. This proves that someone who has done a kind deed for you before is more likely to repeat his kindness rather than someone else for whom you have done a favor. In case of the fabled Fox, the discord created between his desire for the grapes and his inability to reach them was finally set at rest by him when he decided that the grapes are sour and not worth the trouble.

Therefore, decisions made for conflict resolution are mostly based upon methods of resolving cognitive dissonance which may take the form of situational acceptance, avoidance, rejection, invention of alternatives or adapting to the situation.