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 holding conflicting ideas – which 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 of the ideas needs to be reduced somehow because this clash of ideas is extremely uncomfortable to him.
The idea he will make less of is the one that he’s least invested in. It will be the one 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 Hubbard. He is going to keep the idea that justifies his existence as a critic, and he will reduce the idea that makes him look like he was wrong.
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.
- He could say that the examination by these psychiatrists were just “PR”, and that Hubbard paid them to say that. So it’s not important.
- He could say that another team of psychiatrists said that the first team were quacks, and that they declared LRH insane, then ignore what the first team said and glom on to only what the second team said.
- The critic could say that the psychiatrists never said that he was “sane” but that they could find no evidence of mental illness. Very different diagnoses, indeed. And then you could go on and on about psychiatry in the 50’s and 60’s and how primitive it was.
A person will reduce cognitive dissonance in the direction that least changes what his life is already 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 do this, 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 simply trying to reduce their own internal suffering.
I write not to point at any one person and say “HA! THERE! You use cognitive dissonance reduction techniques to avoid confronting the truth!”. I write this because the truth of something is BOTH the good and the bad of it.
Both – at the same time.
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 it without considering all sides.