The Power of Cognitive Dissonance

Billy is 15 and his father is in jail – again. He’s talking with one of his friends about it, who says, “It must be tough having a dad who’s in jail. Doesn’t it make you feel ashamed?” Billy answers, “My dad has had some tough breaks. But you don’t get it. He’s really a great dad. He’s always asking me about school and how I’m doing in baseball. He cares for me; he gives me advice; he watches out for me.”

Tom is showing a neighbor his new car. The neighbor comments, “I’m surprised you got that model, Tom. Didn’t you read that it gets lousy mileage?” Tom is momentarily stunned because he did not know about the mileage study. He says, “Ah, that study wasn’t a good one. Besides, I got this car because of the incredible braking system and other safety features. They’re the best on the market. Let me show you.”

It’s not a good day for Mabel. After years of appeal of his death sentence for killing 8 people in a mass shooting, Mabel’s son will be executed this day at 6pm. Mabel is being interviewed by the local news, and asked if she’s still hopeful her son will get a reprieve from the Governor or a judge. Mabel says, “He’s a good boy. Always took care of his family and his friends. He was so generous and kind. It’s just too bad he had to kill all those people.”

Jared’s wife asks him how he feels about the politician he voted for being indicted by a grand jury for misuse of campaign funds. “I told you he was a no-good crook,” she says, “but you didn’t believe me.” Jared replies, “Oh, come on, grand juries would indict a ham sandwich if the Attorney General asked them to. Besides, you can’t tell me that my guy has been a poor representative. He’s in town all the time holding town-hall meetings. He works with local charities; he got the legislature to approve money for that bridge project; he’s supported the cops with their crime prevention program. He’s done more for this area than I ever thought he would.”

            These are four examples of the power of the psychological process called cognitive dissonance. When a person holds an attitude or performs an action that is totally inconsistent with an event – the dad I love and respect goes to jail; the car I bought after thorough study is a klunker; my beautiful son is a murderer; the guy I voted for may be a crook – the result is dissonance, a very uncomfortable feeling that you may not be as smart as you think you are. The theory of cognitive dissonance predicts that you will be motivated to get rid of the dissonance.

            The simplest way to reduce dissonance is to change your attitude about your judgment: I was wrong about dad; I have poor judgment when buying a car; I raised a murderer; I let that politician fool me. Simplest? Yes. Most comfortable psychologically? No way! The last thing we frail humans want to do is change our positive attitude about ourselves to a more negative attitude. Oh, sure, when appropriate some folks have the personality strength and self-esteem to do the attitude change, but most people do not. So how do they reduce the dissonance?

            According to the theory of cognitive dissonance developed by Leon Festinger, if you hold an attitude that just isn’t consistent with how things turn out – “I raised my kid to be honest, but he got caught shoplifting” – you can change your attitude about your childrearing ability and admit you did a lousy job; or, you can blame your son for not listening to you; or, you can discount the seriousness of his action; or, you can identify additional positive traits in your son that outweigh his negative behavior. One thing for certain: People are least likely to choose the first alternative and change their attitude about themselves; most people divert blame away from themselves when dissonance occurs. In our original four examples, for instance, each case involves reducing dissonance by finding additional positive features in the person or object: Bill focuses on his jailed dad’s positive parenting traits; Tom diverts attention away from gas mileage to safety features; Mabel says her murdering son is a pillar of generosity and affection; and Jared notes a variety of positive actions shown by his indicted candidate.

            The power of dissonance in the coping process should not be underestimated. How many times have you heard someone say, “How can he continue to support that guy?” Or, “When is that family going to admit that they have a crook on their hands and they need to stop enabling her?” Maybe the answer is, “Because the support and enabling are in the service of dissonance to protect one’s fragile ego-strength.” In other words, the inappropriate actions serve to reduce dissonance and make the person feel good over the short run. The problem, however, is that over the long run, those inappropriate actions interfere with behavior flexibility, which is often what one needs to cope well with stress when attitude change about oneself is necessary. Thus, whenever you are confronted with a situation that poses a direct challenge to your self-esteem, once you decide on an action you need to evaluate if you are under the influence of cognitive dissonance.

            Mark got a call from his son who’s away at college. “Dad, they’re suspending me for a semester. They say I stole money from the cafeteria, but I didn’t.” Mark told his son to make an appointment with the Dean for the next day. “I can get there around 11. We’ll meet with the Dean and appeal the ruling.” They met with the Dean the next day. Mark’s son was on work study and he worked at a cash register in the cafeteria. Mark told the Dean, “I’m sure you’re mistaken. My boy would never steal, and he says he didn’t do it.” The Dean showed them a closed-circuit recording that left no doubt the son took a $20 bill out of the register and put it in his pocket. After about 10 seconds of silence Mark said, “I’m sure he intended to pay it back. He doesn’t deserve suspension.” Mark’s image of himself as a parent who raised a son to be honest, was totally at odds with his son’s dishonesty. Mark was under the influence of cognitive dissonance, and it motivated his inappropriate enabling defense of his son. Rightly so, that defense failed. The Dean upheld the suspension. The son transferred to another college, free to steal again. Mark, succumbing to dissonance, left angry at the Dean, but deep down, angrier – and ashamed – at himself.

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