The Spiral Ladder

Climb over the Wall

A Word on Cognitive Dissonance

(Extracted from the appendix of Psyclone)

When discussing the kind of information contained in Psyclone,  (equally The Spiral Ladder), I have found that, more often than not, people react in ways that after research I can now identify as dissonance mitigation. Because of that I have included this section.

The theory of cognitive dissonance is based on the relationships between cognitions. A cognition can be described as a piece of knowledge. For example, the knowledge that your eyes are green is a cognition; the knowledge that you like the colour purple is a cognition; the knowledge that the Earth is round is a cognition. People hold a massive amount of cognitions simultaneously. These cognitions form relationships that are said to be irrelevant, consonant or dissonant.

Irrelevant means that the cognitions have nothing to do with each other. Most of the relationships among a person’s cognitions are irrelevant. Cognitions are consonant if one follows on from, or fits with, the other. It may be part of the nature of the human organism, or it may be learned during the process of socialisation, but people generally prefer cognitions that fit together to those that don’t. When a person’s inner systems, their values, beliefs, attitudes, etc, all support each other and when these are supported by external evidence, including the person’s own actions, they have a psychologically comfortable state of affairs.

Dissonance occurs when an individual must choose between attitudes, beliefs, etc, that are contradictory. A person who has dissonant cognitions is said to be in a state of cognitive dissonance, which is experienced as unpleasant psychological tension. This tension state has drive-like properties not unlike hunger and thirst. When a person has been deprived of food for some time, s/he experiences unpleasant tension and is driven to reduce that tension. Reducing the psychological state of dissonance is not as simple as eating or drinking.

It should be noted here that although the words ‘tension’ and ‘drives’ have a relatively dramatic tone, the states described are very often experienced in very subtle ways. A characteristic of the process is that it happens largely outside of the person’s awareness. Indeed, unlike hunger and thirst which are accepted tensions which can be endured for short or long periods, the psychological tension produced by a threat to one’s existing beliefs or values can be so uncomfortable that the strategies for alleviating the discomfort are usually adopted swiftly and determinedly, and subconsciously.

As said, dissonance is experienced as an unpleasant drive, which motivates the individual to reduce it. The Asch study (Solomon Asch, 1956), described in C5, showed what can happen when there is a serious inconsistency between one’s own experiences (and the beliefs based on them) and those reported by others. But what happens if the inconsistency is among a person’s own experiences, beliefs or actions? Many social psychologists believe that this will trigger some general trend to restore cognitive consistency – to reinterpret the situation so as to minimise whatever inconsistency may be there.

An example provided by a group of social psychologists (Festinger, Riecken and Chachter, 1956) is that of a study of a sect that was awaiting the end of the world. The founder of the sect announced that she had received a message from the “Guardians” of outer space. On a certain day, there would be a worldwide flood. Only the true believers were to be saved and were to be picked up at midnight of the appointed day in extraterrestrial craft. On doomsday, the members of the sect gathered together, awaiting the predicted deluge. The arrival time of the craft came and went; tension mounted as the hours went by. Finally, the leader of the sect received another message: To reward the faith of the faithful, the world was saved. Joy broke out and the believers became more faithful than ever.

Given the failure of a clear-cut prophecy, one might have expected the opposite reaction. A disconfirmation of a predicted event should presumably lead one to abandon the beliefs that produced the prediction. But cognitive dissonance theory says otherwise. By abandoning the beliefs that there were Guardians, the person who had once held this belief would have to accept a painful dissonance between their present skepticism and their past beliefs and actions. Their prior faith would now appear extremely foolish. Some members of the sect had gone to such lengths as giving up their jobs or spending their savings; such acts would have lost all meaning in retrospect without the belief in the Guardians. Under the new circumstances, the dissonance was intolerable. It was reduced by a belief in the new message that bolstered the original belief. Since other members of the sect stood fast with them, their conviction was strengthened all the more. They could now think of themselves, not as fools, but as loyal, steadfast members of a courageous little band whose faith had saved the earth.

One thing worth noting was that while fringe members tended to recognise that they had made fools of themselves and to “put it down to experience”, committed members were more likely to reinterpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (Earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members). This may have been because those who had invested everything in their belief would have experienced more dissonance than those who had not, and thus would have been more strongly motivated to reduce that tension.

The case in point is an extreme example of a process that happens regularly in much more mundane and subtle ways. As has already been pointed out, a characteristic of the process is that it happens largely outside of a person’s awareness.

There are several recognised ways of relieving tension produced by two dissonant cognitions:

1)    Reducing the importance of the dissonant cognition,

2)    changing one to make it consistent with the other or

3)    adding more consonant cognitions that outweigh the dissonant cognition.

(Based on my experience I would add simple ignoring to that list.)

Verbal indicators of the above have been:

  •  ‘What a load of rubbish.’
  •  ‘Not another conspiracy theory.’
  •  ‘You’re reading too much into things.’
  •  ‘That’s not the way things work/There must be some other reason.’
  •  ‘Anyway, even if [what is postulated] were true there’s nothing that we can do about it.’
  •  ‘If that was true, someone would be doing something about it.’
  •  ‘It might not be perfect, but it’s better than…’

(See Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Skepticism )

Earlier the example of a round Earth being a cognition was given. There was a time in history when large amounts of people believed that the planet was flat, a potentially understandable belief/cognition given the lack of knowledge of the time. (An interesting aside here is an article by Michael Roll Uncomfortable Historical Facts That we are Never Taught at School in the Theocracy of England which shows that the round earth theory was actually proved by the Greek scientist Eratosthenes in the 3rd century BCE, and that information suppressed for theocratic/political reasons). When the news finally did get out, it took an inordinately long time for it to be accommodated by most. In that case the magnitude of the dissonance created, because the new cognition threatened some fairly fundamental beliefs, would have needed see-it-with-their-own-eyes proof or the combined weight of the beliefs of those around to change the cognition. Until that happened all sorts of wacky dismissals were put forward to reduce the dissonance produced.

Fast forward to modern day and, for example, the destruction of the World Trade Centre buildings. There is a substantial amount of evidence to prove that a) explosives, not planes, demolished the towers, and b) there was foreknowledge of the event. One of the biggest difficulties that people have in accommodating those facts despite all the evidence (which many won’t even consider for the same reason) is the dissonance caused by the thought that Americans, especially the nation’s leaders, would do such a thing. The nature of the event, and the strength of the existing beliefs, makes accommodating the new cognition difficult to the point of impossible for many. Parallels can be drawn here with cases where, despite evidence and/or testimony, one parent is unable to accept the fact that the other parent has been abusing the children.

The process is equally observable when presenting, or being presented with, subjects like life after death, out-of-body projection, free energy, UFO’s, etc. A good measure for predicting the stimulation of dissonance is a subject’s relative social unorthodoxy. Which provides a clue to what is one of the biggest influences on the formation and maintenance of people’s cognitions (see the Asch Study).

Part Two of Nick Sandberg’s classic thesis Blueprint for a Prison Planet  describes in detail the conditioning process that most of us undergo in the course of a normal Western childhood that permanently alters the way most of us evaluate information. [Ed’s note: Essential reading)

I’ve included this section in the hope of making people more aware of processes which, if not consciously addressed, have the potential to keep them in the dark regarding some very important aspects of themselves, and the natural and socio-political worlds, which, given the current state of things, would be perilous not only for themselves and their loved ones, but for every other person on the planet.

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