Cognitive Dissonance

Humans strive for a harmonious and peaceful life. But, it is not always practically easy. As an example, Tom believes that consuming meat is immoral (belief) but he finds it difficult to stop eating meat (attitude). There arises a natural internal conflict between his belief and his attitude that leads Tom with discomfort. In Social Psychology, this discomfort is termed as Cognitive Dissonance.

When we experience Cognitive Dissonance, we immediately try to alter our cognition (it could be the belief, the attitude, or the behavior) to reduce the intensity of such a discomfort. This kind of protective or defensive mechanism is called as Cognitive Dissonance Reduction. The “negative” emotions as we consciously feel act as a push to perform this reduction.

For the same example I mentioned before, Tom might use one of these possible statements to perform the Cognitive Dissonance Reduction

  1. “You know, I do eat meat once in a while. Very very rarely.” (Modification of original attitude)
  2. “You know what, I don’t think eating meat is not really immoral.” (Trivializing or suppressing the original belief)
  3. “Eating fishes is completely okay, though.” (Adding more cognition)
  4. “Animals are meant for food, they die anyway.” (Completely denying the original cognition)

There is a famous study from Yale University that showed evidences that Cognitive Dissonance Reduction may have originated both developmentally and evolutionarily. The study was conducted on both human preschoolers and monkeys using a simple free-choice methodology. Here is how it goes: The experimenter chooses your most equally favorite three kinds of objects (let’s say, chocolates) and name them A, B, and C. In phase 1 of the experiment, the experimenter will show you A and B, asking you to choose one among them. It is, certainly, a difficult choice to make since you like both of them. But, let’s say you choose B. Now, in phase 2 of the experiment, the experimenter presents you A (the rejected choice in phase 1) and C (the novel one) and asks you to choose one among them.

Guess what? You’re more likely to choose C than A. Because, you experience a cognitive dissonance when they present you the choice (you rejected previously but still it’s your favorite). To resolve this conflict, you’d prefer to reject the chocolate A once again (in order to maintain consistency in your decisions)!

A slightly modified version of the same experiment has been conducted on 6 Capuchins (Cebus Apella) and interestingly, the same Cognitive Dissonance Reduction was observed.

The researchers concluded that some of the mechanisms that drive Cognitive Dissonance Reduction processes in human adults may emerge as a result of developmentally and evolutionarily constrained systems that are consistent across
cultures, ages, and even species.

For further read on the study: