Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the perception of incompatibility between two simultaneously held attitudes or cognitions.  When there is a conflict between beliefs, there is a level of  discomfort proportionate to the strength of the conflicting beliefs.  This tension is most prevalent when an individual’s beliefs are inconsistent with their behaviors.  

The theory originated in 1957 when Leon Fastinger observed cult members who believed that the Earth was going to be destroyed by a great flood.  When the flood did not happen, some members abandoned their belief in the cult’s doctrines, while others who were more committed and had left homes and jobs to commit to the cult continued their belief.  These individuals interpreted the survival of the Earth to be a direct result of their faith.

The theory of cognitive dissonance holds that contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compels the mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, so as to reduce the amount of dissonance.

Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief. There are several ways to eliminate dissonance: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent. (4) override the anxiety of the inconsistent beliefs by accepting the dissonance ex: Orwellian Doublethink.

The most recent example of this was in Harold Camping’s failed rapture prediction.  When faced with the reality that the faithful were still on Earth on May 22nd, Camping concluded that the Rapture was a spiritual one and that the faithful that were chosen on May 21st would ascend to Heaven when the Universe is destroyed on October 21st.