Jeff Hawkins wrote a post a few years ago detailing much of the basics behind Cognitive Dissonance Theory, and I am very grateful that he did, as this theory is fundamental to understanding not only how cult dynamics work, but how human beings work.
I’m currently listening to free online lectures from a Social Psychology class given at Berkley. Social psychology is that field which studies human group dynamics and the influence that a group can have on an individual. I’ve just finished 3 in-depth lectures on Cognitive Dissonance Theory from that course (lectures 7, 8 and 9), and there is a very useful part of this theory that I don’t think has been highlighted enough.
I think it is important to emphasize that it’s the dissonance itself – which comes from being confronted with conflicting ideas – is intolerable to a person. Scientologists called it “entheta”. It’s that dissonant feeling inside yourself that you have to reduce, by reducing the status or importance of one or another of your conflicting ideas, to get rid of the feeling of dissonance in your head, and to feel harmonious, consonant, and copacetic again.
Question: If you are given two conflicting ideas, which conflicting idea do you reduce?
Answer: The one that you are least invested in. Cognitive dissonance reduction always takes the path of least resistance.
Let’s say a person is a long time critic of Scientology. He believes, deep down, that he always seeks to live with the truth. It’s what got him into Scientology, and it’s what got him out of it, too. And that’s why he is a critic, because he always seeks to live with and tell the truth.
As a critic, and a “respected member of the critic community”, he’s been saying that L Ron Hubbard was a huge psycho, actually mentally ill. And he believes this fully.
Then he finds out that L Ron Hubbard was examined by a team of psychiatric experts who all said he was sane, even said that he was a productive member of society.
These two ideas are DISSONANT in the critic’s mind. They are conflicting. As a human being, in his tribal mind, they can’t both be true. It causes distress for him to hold these 2 ideas in his mind at the same time. So, if he can’t completely abandon or ignore one of them, then the power of one these ideas needs to be reduced in his own mind because this clash of ideas is extremely uncomfortable to him.
Cognitive Dissonance theory, properly understood, teaches that the idea a person will reduce the power of is the one that he’s least invested in. It will be the idea he has written the least about, the one that if he adopted it, would not invalidate every position he ever took as a critic of Scientology. Because this critic’s work and self-identity are so heavily invested in being who he is, he is going to bolster the idea which justifies his existence as a critic, and he will weaken the idea that makes him look like he was wrong about so much.
Cognitive Dissonance Reduction Strategies are the Key to Understanding Cognitive Dissonance Theory.
The 3 cognitive dissonance reduction strategies are:
(1) reduce the importance of one or the other conflicting beliefs,
(2) add more non-conflicting beliefs so they outweigh the conflicting beliefs,
or (3) change the conflicting beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent and conflicting.
As an example for Number 1, he could say that the examination by these psychiatrists were just “PR”, and that Hubbard paid them to say that. They were just Hubbard Apologists. So the idea’s importance can be discounted in this critic’s mind.
An example for Number 2, this critic could say that another team of psychiatrists had actually declared LRH insane. This new team’s results can be used to outweigh the other team’s results, so that he can ignore what the first team of psychiatrists found. The critic is likely to glom on to only what the second team said so that the first team’s results are outweighed in his mind.
For Number 3, the critic could say that the psychiatrists never said that he was “sane” but that they could find no evidence of mental illness. That’s a very different diagnoses, indeed. You could really pump up the distinction here. Then you could go on and on about psychiatry in the 50’s and 60’s and how primitive it was. And by the end of all that the results can be changed completely into something new which gives him a feeling of consonance.
The goal of these strategies are to manipulate the importance of information so you can feel better about yourself and what you believe. Research replicated for more than 50 years in social science has shown that a person will reduce cognitive dissonance in the direction that least changes the belief system his life is presently built upon.
Studying this aspect of cognitive dissonance theory, and really understanding and applying it, can be a very dissonant thing in itself: It makes you realize when you have done it too.
All people reduce dissonance by reducing the importance of ideas in their minds, not just the people who disagree with you. All human beings can not tolerate cognitive dissonance and they will always seek to reduce it when they encounter it in life. It is completely human.
All people who seek to reduce cognitive dissonance are trying to reduce the internal suffering caused by being confronted with ideas contrary to their own.
We all seek to live with the truth. But sometimes something is true, and its exact opposite is also true.
It hurts your head, but if you really seek to live with the truth, then you are going to have to develop a tolerance for cognitive dissonance, or at least recognize when you are simply trying to reduce dissonance without considering all sides.