Cognitive dissonance is one of the toughest psychological effects to overcome because the internal conflicts that it creates can have social, cultural and life-altering implications. In other words, the effects of cognitive dissonance can disrupt every aspect of life. And it does. Soldiers who believe in the cause they are fighting for experience cognitive dissonance when they begin to see injustices in how their ‘enemy’ is being treated. People who get caught committing adultery experience cognitive dissonance when they have to try to bring together the hidden aspects of their life with the person they project themselves to be to others. Religious followers experience cognitive dissonance when their scientific education shows them that most claims of their religious books are scientifically false to the point of being absurdities.
Wikipedia says the following:
Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. When inconsistency (dissonance) is experienced, individuals largely become psychologically distressed. His basic hypotheses are listed below:
“The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance.”
“When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance.”
Cognitive dissonance is therefore one important reason why people will cling to existing belief systems rather than allowing fresh information to change their minds. It is such a powerful force that people will fight and die rather than bear the psychological stress of realising they have been under a false apprehension. And of course people have different levels of self-awareness, with more intelligent people generally being more self-aware. But intelligence does not always help – we can fool ourselves easier than others can fool us, no matter how intelligent we are, and we tend to fool ourselves a lot to avoid cognitive dissonance. We fool ourselves about who loves us, about who is good for us, and about most of the things we care about. This effectively means that we are wrong about most of the things we think we are right about.
As Einstein said famously, “We know nothing at all. All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren. The real nature of things we shall never know.”
So where does that leave us in our constant battle against cognitive dissonance? I believe we can learn something from Einstein and the others whose giant shoulders he stood on. Accept that we know next to nothing for certain. Question everything. Be a sceptic. Do not believe others without finding out for ourselves. And accept that there is a kind of war going on between those who would rather close their eyes and ears than subject themselves to a cognitive dissonance that they would have to deal with. Some people have the courage to face reality, and others do not, and that is probably why religion perpetuates itself in our technological world. And why religious people will kill for their particular version of reality to be the one that comes out top.