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 John’s family owns an electric car.
One day, he decides to attend a lecture on the negative environmental effects of certain animal products which apparently contribute significantly to climate change. To his dismay, John realizes that he uses many of those products on a regular basis. His stomach drops:
That means that he is part of the problem he is trying to resolve.
This cannot be! John is a champion of the environment. But, John doesn't think he is willing to stop eating meat and he knows his family won’t be.
To get rid of the pit in his stomach and resolve the identity crisis he is having, John quickly concludes that the speaker must not know what they are talking about. Also, he thinks, even if animal products aren’t great for the environment, he has done so many other things that are good for the environment, that it must even out (at least). John’s mind is put at ease.
Cognitive dissonance is most likely at work here. To resolve the inconsistency revealed by this new information on certain animal products, John rejects and rationalizes the speech so that his identity as an environmentalist isn’t painfully compromised.
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Rejecting, rationalizing, or avoiding information that conflicts with our beliefs can lead us to make poor decisions. This is because the information is not rejected because it is false but because it makes us uncomfortable. Information that is both true and useful can often have this effect. Decisions made in the absence of true and useful information can have harmful consequences. Smoking, for example, has been shown to cause cancer and contribute to various other chronic health conditions. 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.
Looking further into the effects of cognitive dissonance leads to troubling conclusions across academia and political society. If researchers tend to analyze information in a way that supports conclusions that are consistent with their own beliefs, then cognitive dissonance may threaten the objective methodology that underpins much of academia today.
The effectiveness of social causes is also threatened by cognitive dissonance. The change they often call for requires many people to change their existing beliefs and behavior. This is not possible if a significant portion of us do not consider evidence that conflicts with the beliefs or behaviors these causes seek to alter. Environmentalism and its associated climate change action movements are a good example. Most of us care for nature and want to preserve it. But the evidence championed by these movements often indicates that we aren’t doing enough as individuals. Many of us are part of the problem. Such evidence shows us that our behaviors are often at odds with our beliefs.
Seeing this contradiction, many of us respond by either rationalizing our behaviors, rejecting environmentalism and the evidence it relies on, or adopting the belief that our individual actions have a negligible effect on the environment. This prevents the widespread behavioral change many environmental causes call for.
Cognitive dissonance may also facilitate a political divide. When we believe strongly in a political leader or ideology, we are more likely to dismiss information that does not support their message. In other words, we often ignore or distort evidence that challenges our political beliefs. This is part of the reason why it is so difficult to change someone’s mind on political issues. Voters are likely to remain loyal to their chosen candidates and party even when evidence that should challenge those loyalties is presented.1
“When people feel a strong connection to a political party, leader, ideology, or belief, they are more likely to let that allegiance do their thinking for them and distort or ignore the evidence that challenges those loyalties.”
– Social psychologists Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris
Why it happens
Cognitive dissonance occurs when there is an uncomfortable tension between two or more beliefs that are held simultaneously.2 This most commonly occurs when our behaviors do not align with our attitudes – we believe one thing, but act against those beliefs. The strength of cognitive dissonance, or the pain it causes, depends on the number and relative weight of the conflicting beliefs. This mental conflict and the resulting discomfort motivates us to pick between beliefs by justifying and rationalizing one while rejecting or reducing the importance of the others.
We tend to pick the belief or idea that is most familiar and ingrained in us. Changing our beliefs isn’t easy, nor is changing the attitudes and behaviour associated with them. As a result, we usually stick with the beliefs we already hold, as opposed to adopting new ones that are presented to us. In fact, many of us go further by avoiding situations or information that might clash with our existing beliefs to create dissonance.
Psychologist Leon Festinger is credited with pioneering cognitive dissonance. He offers three explanations for why someone might be unwilling to change their existing beliefs or behaviour in light of new, conflicting information:
- “The change may be painful or involve loss.” As mentioned above, changing our behavior or beliefs can be difficult— especially if they are deeply held or likely to bring hardship.
- "The present behavior may be otherwise satisfying.” Think of smokers, many of whom know the adverse consequences of their behavior but succumb to the satisfaction that outweighs it. They are reluctant to accept information that confirms the future costs.
- “Making the change may simply not be possible.” Festinger admits that this is unlikely, but still possible. Some emotional reactions for example, can be outside of our control at the time.3
Festinger goes on to point out that it is natural for us to look for internal psychological consistency. It forms our identity and allows us to make sense of the world. This makes sense: it would be difficult to think of yourself as a whole, and complete person if all your beliefs and opinions logically contradicted each other or never lined up with your behaviour.
“...the individual strives towards consistency within himself. His opinions and attitudes, for example, tend to exist in clusters that are internally consistent.”- Leon Festinger
Why it is important
If ignored, our responses to cognitive dissonance can have harmful consequences in our personal and professional lives. Remember the smoking example? This logic can be applied elsewhere in our personal lives. Avoiding dissonance may prevent us from considering new information and consequently, from changing harmful behaviors. If the contradictions between our beliefs and behaviors are not sorted out by making such changes (ie. if we deal with dissonance through rationalization), we might also be subject to hypocrisy.
In our professional lives, cognitive dissonance can result in missed opportunities. If we are hard-headed in our ways and unwilling to consider information that runs against our stance, then we will be less responsive and adaptable to situations in our workplace.
Think of an executive who is convinced that the product they are launching will succeed, and to avoid the painful realization that it may not, refuses to acknowledge the cries of his engineering team who claim that the product will malfunction. Likewise, many of us might reject evidence that our careers are not headed in the right direction, instead justifying our choice to keep on the same tracks and consequently forgo a more fruitful path.
How to avoid it
There is no way of avoiding cognitive dissonance itself. Remember that cognitive dissonance is just the discomfort we feel when our beliefs or attitudes contradict each other. What can be mitigated, is our natural response to this discomfort (ie. how we approach dissonance reduction).
As said before, our natural response to cognitive dissonance is to rationalize our existing beliefs or reject and avoid information that conflicts with them to cause dissonance. We have already noted the harms associated with doing this. Changing our beliefs when they are challenged by new information is often better than ignoring this information or rationalizing the existing beliefs which may be wrongly held. We should look to make this a more viable response to internal conflict. This is called a conditioned or “learned reflexive response.”4
A general strategy may be to accept that conflict and the resulting change can be good for us. We can all think of past behaviors and attitudes that we are thankful to have changed. And although, as Festinger said, conflict and change “may be painful or involve loss,” it often doesn’t. Thinking of change negatively may cause us to avoid employing it when in dissonance. So, we should instead seek to associate change with gratification and gain. This may condition us to favour it as a response to mental conflict rather than rejecting, rationalizing, or avoiding information.
And as always, being aware of a cognitive bias that normally occurs subsciously can help us recognize when our decisions are influenced by it. This is to say, understanding and looking for cognitive dissonance in our decision-making can help us realize when our decision to reject rationalize, or avoid new information is caused by it.
How it all started
While American psychologist Jack Brehm was the first to investigate the relationship between dissonance and decision making in 1956, psychologist Leon Festinger was the first to formulate it into a theory of social psychology. In his seminal book published in 1957, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger details his theory and points to its influence in the psychology of learning.
Festinger became interested in the phenomenon during his time at the University of Minnesota, during which he read about doomsday cults who believed messages from extraterrestrial aliens were communicating the world would end with a great flood on a specific date. He was curious about how they would react when the prophecy failed.
He studied their response, noting that instead of abandoning the cult and their philosophy, committed members doubled-down and increased their efforts to recruit others.
Festinger concluded that members had this response to lessen the pain of disconfirmation, which sparked an inquiry into cognitive dissonance.5
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.’ This can be problematic for public health.
In 2016, researchers Michael Ent and Mary Gerend analyzed two studies on the relationship between cognitive dissonance on people’s negative attitudes towards beneficial medical screening.
In one of the studies, participants were told about an unpleasant test for a virus (which was fictitious). Half of them were told they qualified for testing, and the other half was led to believe they were not.
The results showed that eligible participants reported less favorable attitudes toward the unpleasant screening than those who were ineligible. So, the unpleasantness of a medically reviewed screening affected candidates’ attitudes towards it more than non-candidate’s attitudes. This was attributed to the experience of cognitive dissonance. 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. To deal with this dissonance, many participants looked down on the screening.6 These results speak to a broader tendency for people attempting to deal with dissonance by avoiding actions that actually benefit them.
Example 2 - Not listening to the other side
As mentioned earlier, we often don’t give enough credence to evidence that challenges the political figures or ideologies that we believe in. Our loyalties do the thinking for us. This can have the added effect of preventing conflict resolution.
In 2002, a team of researchers led by social psychologist Lee Ross investigated the tendency for political enemies to derogate each other's compromise proposals by conducting studies on Palestinian-Israeli perceptions. In one study, 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. In reality, the peace plan was actually Israeli-authored.
Ross in part attributes this 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, a proposal is largely evaluated by looking at who wrote it, rather than its content. A proposal by an adversary is likely to be devalued because it was proposed by the adversary— even when it is objectively beneficial.
One reason for this, Ross says, is cognitive dissonance. Adversaries may devalue or reject peace proposals in order to rationalize their history and beliefs. In other words, settlements are interpreted in a way that justifies the past position they took in the struggle.7 This phenomenon is not limited to the Israel-Palestine conflict. We have a tendency to interpret information given by our political adversaries in a way that meshes with our own political convictions.
What it is
Cognitive Dissonance is a theory proposing that we avoid having conflicting beliefs and attitudes because it makes us uncomfortable. The clash is usually dealt with by rejecting, debunking, or avoiding new information.
Why it happens
Cognitive dissonance occurs when there is an uncomfortable tension between two or more beliefs that are held simultaneously. This most commonly occurs when our attitudes and behavior do not align with our attitudes – we believe one thing, but act against those beliefs. The resulting discomfort motivates us to pick between beliefs by rationalizing one and rejecting or delegitimizing the other(s). We tend to pick the belief or idea that is most ingrained in us, which is the one we already hold. It is natural for us to look for internal psychological consistency, as it forms our identity and allows us to make sense of the world.
Example #1 - Avoiding the doctor
A 2016 analysis of two studies by researchers Michael Ent and Mary Gerend details our reluctance to undergo beneficial medical screenings. In one of the studies, participants were told 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. Results showed that eligible participants reported less favorable attitudes toward the unpleasant screening than those who were ineligible. 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. To deal with this dissonance, many participants looked down on the screening.
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 conducting studies on 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. In reality, the peace plan was actually Israeli-authored. One reason for this, the researchers conclude, is cognitive dissonance. Adversaries may 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. Changing our beliefs when they are challenged by new information is often better than ignoring this information or rationalizing the existing beliefs which may be wrongly held. Thinking of change negatively may cause us to avoid employing it when in dissonance. So, we should instead seek to associate change with gratification and gain. This is called a conditioned or “learned reflexive response.” By conditioning ourselves to favour change as a response to mental conflict, we might be able to avoid rejecting, rationalizing, or avoiding conflicting information. And as always, being aware of a cognitive bias that normally occurs subsciously can help us recognize when our decisions are influenced by it.
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