Why is it so hard to change someone's beliefs?
Cognitive Dissonance, explained.
What is Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance describes when we avoid having conflicting beliefs and attitudes because it makes us feel uncomfortable. The clash is usually dealt with by rejecting, debunking, or avoiding new information.
Where this bias occurs
Consider the following hypothetical situation: John is an avid environmentalist. He is president of the environmental club at school, goes to climate change marches, and even owns an electric car.
One day, John attends a lecture on the negative environmental effects of certain food products. To his dismay, John learns that coffee processing plants are responsible for water pollution that destroys ecosystems and shrinks biodiversity. His stomach drops: this means that he is part of the problem he is trying to resolve.
This cannot be! John is an advocate for the environment… but a huge coffee drinker. Even he doesn’t think he can give up his morning brew, let alone convince his friends to do the same.
To get rid of the pit in his stomach and resolve his identity crisis, John quickly concludes that the speaker must not know what they are talking about. He also figures that even if drinking coffee isn’t great for the environment, he has made so many other efforts to be sustainable that it must even out. With his mind temporarily put at ease, John stops by Starbucks after class for his afternoon pick-me-up.
John’s refusal to stop drinking coffee is a prime example of cognitive dissonance at work. To resolve the inconsistency between his environmental beliefs and his not-so-environmental actions, John dismisses the lecture as misinformation so that his identity isn’t painfully compromised.
Debias Your Organization
Most of us work & live in environments that aren’t optimized for solid decision-making. We work with organizations of all kinds to identify sources of cognitive bias & develop tailored solutions.
Rejecting, rationalizing, or avoiding information that conflicts with our beliefs can lead us to make poor decisions. This is because we don’t reject information because it is false, but rather because its reality makes us feel uncomfortable. Decisions made in the absence of truth can have harmful consequences on both ourselves and those around us.
For example, smoking has been proven to cause cancer and contribute to various other chronic conditions, even for those who inhale it second-hand. Smokers often rationalize their detrimental decision to continue smoking by either denying evidence that supports its health risks or by considering themselves to be the lucky exception. Their dismissal resolves their dissonance and enables them to continue making poor decisions that will later compromise their physical health.
Digging deeper into the greater impacts of cognitive dissonance leads to troubling conclusions across academia, social movements, and politics.
If researchers tend to analyze information in a way that supports conclusions already consistent with their own beliefs, then cognitive dissonance may threaten the objective methodology that underpins much of academia today. For instance, a neuroscientist inventing an antidepressant may disregard any evidence questioning its efficacy, or rationalize that the participants must not meet the inclusion criteria, rather than just trying to fix the drug itself.
Luckily, most clinical trials avoid biases through double blind randomized control studies, meaning both the participants and researchers are unaware as to which group is receiving the treatment variable and which group is receiving the control. This design helps to reduce cognitive dissonance, since the researchers don’t know which results to reject, rationalize, or avoid. Instead, they must accept the outcomes as they are, and adjust their theories accordingly.
Meanwhile, cognitive dissonance also threatens many social causes, which require us to change our existing beliefs and behaviors to be effective. This is impossible if we refuse to even consider evidence that we may be part of the problem. Instead, we’ll do anything to justify our current standings, rather than join the necessary change.
Take environmentalism for example. Although most of us care about nature and want to preserve it, most evidence indicates we aren’t doing nearly enough as individuals to save the planet. In fact, we actively damage the planet through our daily routines, such as John drinking coffee. Our destructive behaviors are often at odds with our environmental beliefs.
When called out on our contradictions, many of us respond by either rationalizing our unsustainable habits, rejecting the evidence environmentalism upholds, or believing that individual action doesn’t matter all that much. However, each of our individual refusals to change accumulates into widespread passivity, preventing the radical transformations vital for environmentalism to be effective.
Finally, cognitive dissonance may also facilitate political divides. When we align strongly with a political leader or ideology, we are more likely to dismiss any information not in support of their campaign. In other words, we often distort or simply ignore evidence that challenges our political beliefs, explaining why it is so difficult to change them.
For instance, politicians during debates often refuse to accept any of their opponents' arguments, rather than trying to establish a middle ground. On the other hand, most voters remain loyal to their chosen candidates even after encountering evidence that should challenge their alliance.1 This means that cognitive dissonance prevents us from making educated political choices at every stage of the electoral process.
How it affects product
Have you ever opened up your favorite social media app, only to discover the entire design has changed? The color scheme, the layout, even the logo at the top of the screen—everything is different. Caught off guard, you hastingly exit out of the app and settle on playing Candy Crush instead.
This anecdote illustrates our cognitive dissonance when first encountering modifications in UI design. After all, we were loyal to the old interface, and don’t want to adjust our expectations for the new one, even ifit is more intuitive. To resolve our unease, we might choose to stop using that app for the time being, or even abandon it altogether.
Luckily for digital organizations, most users will gradually grow accustomed to the new interface due to the mere exposure effect. However, social media companies should expect a temporary decline in user engagement following any major update. To prevent this dissonance dip, UI designers may opt for incorporating smaller changes over time to help transition users, rather than redoing every feature all at once.
Cognitive dissonance and AI
As machine learning skyrockets in popularity, many professionals are afraid of computers replacing their jobs—especially when ChatGPT can write a paper in the amount of time it takes for us to write a sentence.
Small businesses may be reluctant to adopt artificial intelligence into their protocols, as relying on technology seems to oppose their company value of human-to-human engagement. However, small businesses might benefit from adopting artificial intelligence the most to help streamline processes so that they can measure up to their bigger competitors. In this case, cognitive dissonance from “AI threat” prevents companies from directly benefiting their employees and customers in a feeble attempt to preserve traditional roles and values.
Why it happens
Cognitive dissonance results from an uncomfortable tension between two or more of our beliefs.2 This most commonly occurs when our attitudes do not align with our actions—when we think one way, but behave another. Both the number and importance of our contradicting beliefs determine how much mental turmoil we experience. We resolve our cognitive discomfort by rationalizing and justifying one belief, while reducing or rejecting the rest.
Changing our attitudes isn’t easy, let alone unlearning the behaviors associated with them. As a result, we usually stick with the belief ingrained deepest inside of us, as opposed to adopting new ones, even if they have more evidence supporting them. In fact, many of us take this one step further by avoiding uncomfortable scenarios that clash with our existing beliefs altogether.
American psychologist Leon Festinger offers three explanations as to why someone might be unwilling to change their existing beliefs or behaviors in light of new, conflicting information:
- “The change may be painful or involve loss.” As mentioned above, changing our attitudes and actions can be difficult—especially if they are deeply held.
- "The present behavior may be otherwise satisfying.” Think of smokers, who know the negative health effects of their habits, yet still succumb to the satisfaction. They are reluctant to accept information that confirms the future costs.
- “Making the change may simply not be possible.” Even Festinger admits that overwhelming emotional reactions to change may sometimes not be worth it.3
Festinger assures that it is natural for us to seek internal consistency, both to form a stable identity and understanding of the world around us. This makes sense: it would be difficult to think of yourself as a complete person if all your beliefs and opinions logically contradicted each other or never lined up with your behavior. In this same way, it is easier to interpret the world as a coherent place, rather than grappling with all of its inherent discrepancies.
Why it is important
If we continue to ignore our reactions to cognitive dissonance—rejecting, rationalizing, and avoiding—they can all bear negative consequences on both our personal and professional lives.
Many of us resolve dissonance by warping our beliefs to align with our bad habits, rather than fixing our bad habits to align with our beliefs. If we continue relying on this unhealthy coping mechanism, we may become subject to hypocrisy, making it difficult for anyone to take us at face value. After all, how can you trust someone who says one thing, but does another?
Remember: actions speak louder than words. There is no point in supporting a theory unless we put it into practice. By dedicating intentional effort towards fixing our maladaptive behaviors, we not only become more reliable human beings, but actually help the causes we claim to support.
Cognitive dissonance can also result in missed career opportunities. Think of an executive who is convinced that their new product will succeed since they have invested countless time and resources into its development. However, right before its release, the engineering team detects an error in the system increasing the chances of malfunction. Rather than accepting this painful realization and going back to the drawing board, the executive dismisses their finding and launches the product anyways—only to have to issue a recall months later.
Like the executive, many of us might reject evidence that our careers that we have worked so hard on are not headed in the right direction. Instead, we justify our choice to keep on the same track, even if it leads towards inevitable failure. If we can temporarily endure the discomfort of dissonance, we can align our actions and beliefs by choosing a better career path to pursue instead. Even though this may cost more in the moment, it will more likely lead to long-term success.
How to avoid it
There is no way of avoiding cognitive dissonance—for it is merely the discomfort we feel when our attitudes contradict each other, not the response itself. What can be mitigated, though, is how we deal with our discomfort.
We should try to resist our natural tendency to rationalize our existing beliefs or reject and avoid information that conflicts with them. Remember all of the harm this causes! Instead, we should open ourselves up to fixing our beliefs or modifying our behavior when convincing evidence challenges them. Over time and with lots of practice, acceptance instead of rejection should feel innate instead of forced, becoming what is called a “conditioned” or “learned reflexive response.”4
Accepting conflict can be a good thing when it prompts important changes. We can all think of past habits or attitudes we are thankful to have gotten rid of after realizing the negative impact they had on ourselves or others. And although transitions can be hard to get through, we often anticipate them being much worse than they actually are. Rather than associating change with pain and loss, we should instead try to associate change with gratification and gain. This positive connotation may condition us to make necessary adjustments when facing mental conflict rather than rejecting, rationalizing, or avoiding information.
Being aware of common cognitive biases can help us recognize when our decisions are influenced by them—and cognitive dissonance is no exception. Actively searching for prevailing conflicts in our beliefs and behaviors can help us make better decisions, rather than subconsciously falling into the same traps, over and over again.
How it all started
While American psychologist Jack Brehm was the first to investigate the relationship between dissonance and decision making in 1956, Festinger formulated it into a theory of social psychology. In his seminal book published in 1957, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger explains that two relevant cognitions are either “consonant” (aligning succinctly with one another) or “dissonant” (contradicting one another). When facing dissonance, we attempt to reduce the psychological discomfort by avoiding new information that contradicts with our cognitions or emphasizing one cognition over another.8
Festinger initially became intrigued by cognitive dissonance during his time at the University of Minnesota, where he read about a doomsday cult who believed they were receiving messages from extraterrestrial aliens that the world would end with a great flood on a specific date. He investigated how the cult reacted when their prophecy failed.
Instead of abandoning their philosophy, committed members doubled-downed on their efforts to recruit others. Festinger concluded that members resorted to this response to lessen the cognitive pain of disconfirmation, covering up their blatant failure by magnifying their beliefs. This initial case study inspired Festinger to begin empirically studying how humans cope with conflicting attitudes.5
Festinger conducted his most famous experiment demonstrating cognitive dissonance in 1956 called the “Forced-Compliance Paradigm.”9,10 Along with social psychologist Merill Carlsmith, Festinger recruited 71 male psychology students at Stanford University as participants. In fact, the students were not recruited but required to partake in the experiment to explore the effects of mandatory agreement on their levels of dissonance.
The participants performed hours of boring and redundant tasks, such as placing spools on a tray, or turning square pegs. Afterwards, the experimenter asked them to lie to the next group of “participants” (confederates helping to run the experiment) that the activities were exciting, claiming they wanted to test how their false expectations affected their attitudes. (Little did the participants know that it was actually their attitudes being monitored!) One half of the students received a dollar for lying, while the other half of the group received twenty dollars to determine if their monetary compensation influenced their level of engagement they reported at the end of the experiment.
And it did! As Festinger and Carlsmith anticipated, the participants paid one dollar reported the mundane activities as being much more exciting when compared to the participants paid twenty dollars. Since the underpaid students were given almost nothing to lie to the next group of participants, they convinced themselves that they actually enjoyed the experiment to reduce the pain of dissonance. Meanwhile, the well-compensated students felt no need to adjust their attitudes, as their reimbursement was enough of a reason to lie.
Carlsmith later teamed up with psychologist Elliot Aronson further investigate self-justification from dissonance in their influential “Forced Toy Experiment.”11 Before children were left alone in a room with a desirable toy, they were either warned by a strict experimenter that they would be severely punished if they played with the toy, or informed by a mellow experimenter that they would mildly disciplined if they played with the toy.
Luckily, all of the children managed to resist temptation. However, each groups’ response greatly differed when they were finally given permission to use the toy. The children originally threatened with severe punishment happily played, delighted to have the consequences revoked. Meanwhile, the children cautioned with mild punishment refused to even touch the toy, as they originally convinced themselves it was not worth playing with since their consequences were not as bad. With their dissonance resolved, the toy no longer seemed as desirable.
Example 1 - Avoiding the doctor
Many of us avoid getting medical screenings when it is often in our best interest to do so. We convince ourselves that the symptoms are “probably nothing” and that it will “go away by itself.” Unfortunately, this prevents patients from catching symptoms that might later develop into serious chronic conditions.
To better understand this tendency, researchers Michael Ent and Mary Gerend conducted research on the relationship between cognitive dissonance and widespread negative attitudes towards medical screening. In one study, participants learned about an invasive test for a virus (which, in fact, was fictitious). Afterwards, researchers told one group that they qualified for testing, and the other group that they did not.
To no surprise, eligible participants reported unfavorable attitudes toward the invasive screening more than those who were ineligible. This discrepancy indicates that the unpleasantness of virus testing affected candidates’ attitudes towards it more than non-candidate’s. We can explain these results using cognitive dissonance, since selected participants were caught in a clash between the obligation they feel towards maintaining their health through screening and the discomfort of going through the screening itself. To resolve their dissonance, many participants decided to be skeptical about the test.6
This study reflects a broader tendency for us to deal with cognitive dissonance by avoiding actions that actually benefit us, especially when it comes to our physical health. Remember, regular check-ins are not only important for you, but for everyone to help avoid overwhelming the medical system with serious issues that could have been easily treated early on.
Example 2 - Not listening to the other side
As previously discussed, we often ignore evidence that challenges the political figures or ideologies that we endorse. Our loyalties do the thinking for us. This reluctance to understand the other side can prevent conflict resolution in our elected bodies.
In 2002, a team of researchers led by social psychologist Lee Ross investigated the tendency for political opponents to derogate each other's compromise proposals, specifically focussing on Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In one study, Israeli Jews were more likely to criticize a peace plan when it was attributed to the Palestinians—when in reality, it was actually Israeli-authored.
Ross attributes this reluctance to a “process whereby the content of a proposal is considered and interpreted (if the proposal comes from the other side) in a manner that renders the proposal less palatable.” In other words, the Israelis evaluated the proposal based on who wrote it, rather than the content itself. They dismissed the other side simply because it was the other side, even when the proposal objectively benefited both sides.
In this case, cognitive dissonance may cause adversaries to disregard peace proposals as a means of rationalizing their unwavering alliance to their cultural heritage. Simply put, Isrealis interpret settlements in a way that justifies the past position their people took in the struggle, rather than prioritizing futures means to end that struggle.7
Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to the Israel-Palestine conflict. We all have a tendency of disregarding our political adversaries to preserve our own ideologies. However, it may require dismantling our own ideologies to finally put an end to civil unrest.
What it is
Cognitive Dissonance is a theory proposing that we avoid having conflicting beliefs and attitudes because it makes us uncomfortable. We usually deal with this clash by rejecting, debunking, or avoiding new information.
Why it happens
Cognitive dissonance occurs when there is an uncomfortable tension between our beliefs—most commonly when our attitudes don’t align with our actions. The resulting uneasiness motivates us to pick between beliefs by rationalizing one and minimizing or rejecting the rest. We tend to choose the idea most ingrained in us rather than adopting new ones. It is natural for us to look for internal consistency, as it forms our identity and allows us to make sense of the world.
Example #1 - Avoiding the doctor
Research by Ent and Gerend details our reluctance to undergo beneficial medical screenings. In one experiment, participants learned about an unpleasant test for a virus. Half of them were told they qualified for testing, and the other half was told they did not. Eligible participants reported more negative attitudes toward the unpleasant screening than those who were ineligible. Eligible participants were caught in a clash between the obligation they felt towards maintaining their health through screening and the discomfort of actually going through the screening. To deal with this dissonance, many participants were skeptical about screening instead.
Example #2 - Not listening to the other side
We have a tendency to interpret information given by our political adversaries in a way that meshes with our own political convictions. A 2002 study investigated the tendency for political enemies to derogate each other's compromise proposals by analyzing Palestinian-Israeli perceptions. Israeli Jews were found to evaluate a peace plan less favorably when it was attributed to the Palestinians than when it was attributed to their own government. Researchers concluded that cognitive dissonance may cause adversaries to devalue or reject peace proposals in order to rationalize their history and beliefs.
How to avoid it
There is no way of avoiding cognitive dissonance itself. What can be mitigated is our natural response to it. When new information challenges our beliefs, it is better to accept it as reality than continue on in denial.
Thinking of change negatively may cause us to avoid it altogether. We should seek to associate change with gratification and gain instead of pain and loss. By conditioning ourselves to favor growth as a response to mental conflict, we might be able to avoid rejecting, rationalizing, or avoiding conflicting information.
Related TDL articles
This article looks at how artificial intelligence helps us to make decisions, or even makes decisions for us. In support, the author claims that individuals’ cognitive dissonance can influence the probabilistic models used to make policy decisions.
This article outlines the reasons why we are susceptible to fake news, and we can fight the uptake of false information. One reason why we are influenced by fake news is that it can be consistent with our own beliefs. Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias might therefore play a role, as we are more inclined to rationalize our existing beliefs than have them challenged by legitimate news sources.