Negotiating Cognitive Dissonance

If you were listening to a spoken tape recording which had some interference on it but was still comprehensible, how hard would you try to make it clearer? The answer probably depends on whether you agreed with what you were hearing! In 1967, the experimental psychologists Timothy Brock and Joe Balloun played for their subjects a tape-recorded message attacking Christianity. Some of their subjects were steady churchgoers, whereas others seldom if ever went to church. But Brock and Balloun deliberately added static to the recordings. They found that the non-churchgoers tended to make a concerted effort to clarify the message by removing the static. The churchgoers, on the other hand, were more likely to live with the static and let the message remain hard to hear. Brock and Balloun did another study where they put static in a tape-recorded message that linked smoking to cancer. Again, it was the non-smokers who made the effort to remove the static and clarify the message. Smokers tended not to make the effort and to leave the static alone. These psychological studies show that people want, all other things being equal, to get outside inputs consistent with their own previous beliefs and actions. That is, they try to avoid conditions that lead to cognitive dissonance, a term originated by Leon Festinger.

Cognitive dissonance means the ability of a person to simultaneously hold at least two opinions or beliefs that are logically or psychologically inconsistent. In some cases the believer is aware of the contradiction. In other cases she or he is only conscious of the two beliefs separately, in different contexts. [...]Festinger described some typical reactions to cognitive dissonance as follows:

1. The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance.

2. 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.

But how do they try to reduce it? There's the rub. Some people resolve dissonance by "tuning out" information that threatens their biases or preconceptions. This is one reason why many people are attracted to "total systems" of beliefs, whether in religion, politics, or psychotherapy. But other people use more imaginative and complex methods of resolving dissonance, and these tend to be more self-actualized. Specifically, self-actualized people are more likely to synthesize conflicting elements rather than decide between them. Self-actualized people are also less likely to resolve conflicts by repressing information about their environments.

[...]The situations that Festinger describes refer to subjects who have already made decisions but may receive information that is inconsistent with a previously made decision. For example, a person may have become a heavy cigarette smoker because s/he likes the taste of a particular brand of cigarettes or finds they reduce tension. If the same person receives new information that smoking is likely to have worse effects on health than s/he previously thought, s/he could react in many possible ways. S/he could change her or his behavior, by quitting smoking. Or s/he could change his or her cognition, by denying the new information about the health risks of smoking. Or s/he could integrate the new information but still decide that the benefits of smoking outweigh the risks. The smoking example shows that the effort to reduce dissonance often can lead to selective repression of information that argues against previously made decisions. The tendency to repress is greater when there is heavy personal investment in the decisions. For example, Festinger discusses data on people who have just purchased new automobiles, a decision that looms fairly large on the investment scale. After purchase, these people tended to look at advertisements for the brand of car they had just bought more than they did at advertisements for other types of cars.

Since Festinger's seminal research, there has been some dispute among psychologists about the importance of dissonance. There has been evidence suggesting that people are most likely to feel bad about performing actions that conflict with their professed attitude when their actions are likely to have been harmful or unpleasant to others, and when they perceive they have personal responsibility for those bad consequences. More recently, though, it was found that dissonance in and of itself, apart from its anticipated consequences, can lead to physiological discomfort. For example, Eddie Harmon-Jones and his colleagues gave some experimental subjects a choice to write on a piece of paper that a bad-tasting drink in fact tasted pleasant. Then the subjects were asked to throw that piece of paper away so nobody would be influenced by it. In spite of the lack of consequences of their acts, the subjects who pretended the drink tasted pleasant still showed an increase in their skin's electrical conductance, which is a typical physiological measure of emotional discomfort.

That a cognitive mismatch can be emotionally uncomfortable is hard for many people (researchers as well as lay people) to accept. This is because those people believe the common nonsense that the cognitive and emotional spheres are separate. But the emotional effects of cognitive dissonance make sense in a dynamic neural network in which cognition and emotion are deeply intertwined. And there is much evidence of emotion and cognition being intertwined in the actual brain. The frontal lobes, which are involved in high-level cognitive processing, are also connected heavily with the limbic system and hypothalamus, which are areas involved in drive and emotion. The hypothalamus exerts regulatory control over the autonomic nervous system, which influences skin conductance and other physiological responses to environmental events. Moreover, the emotional distress resulting from cognitive dissonance makes sense for the purposes of adaptation. This is because accurate information processing increases the predictability of our interactions with a complex environment. If the information we receive is contradictory or lacks coherence, this provokes anxiety about our ability to cope with the environment's demands.

Levels of Mental Conflict Resolution

Festinger's definition of cognitive dissonance mainly emphasized mental conflicts that occur after a decision is made. But other psychologists have used a similar theoretical perspective to understand conflicts that occur before decisions are made. For example, Daniel Wegner and Robin Vallacher discussed different ways that people handle what they call evaluative inconsistencies, that is, combinations of different pieces of information that could lead to positive and negative evaluations of the same person or the same course of action. We turn now to these different strategies for resolving inconsistencies. That should provide clues for neural organization of high-level cognitive information processing and how it differs between individuals.

A 1954 study of evaluative inconsistency by Eugene Gollin, largely confirmed by later studies, is discussed in Wegner and Vallacher's book. In Gollin's work, subjects were shown a film of the same young woman engaged in a range of behaviors. The first two scenes suggested that she was sexually promiscuous, which would be likely to lead to a negative evaluation (more so in the 1950s than it would have more recently!) After a neutral middle scene, the last two scenes suggested that she was kind and considerate, which would be likely to lead to a positive evaluation. Then the subjects were asked to describe this woman in writing.

Gollin found that subjects tended to fall in one of three categories of description, which were called univalent, aggregative, and integrative. Univalent descriptions focused on either the woman's promiscuity or her kindness, ignoring the other entirely. Aggregative descriptions mentioned both the promiscuity and the kindness, but separately, without trying to form a unified impression. Integrative descriptions included an effort to form a unified explanation encompassing both sets of behaviors, such as "she's happy-go-lucky" or "she's easygoing."

Most of us are univalent, aggregative, and integrative at different times. Which strategy we adopt depends in part on how compelling the two "sides" of the information conflict are. For example, if we see a person being kind over several years, one short period of promiscuity may have little effect on our impressions of the person. Wegner and Vallacher reported other studies in which univalence can be disguised as integration. Some subjects exposed to information that a person was loyal but also sarcastic and stubborn formed a global negative impression of the person, and then explained away the loyalty as blind faith in authority.

But the strategy a person uses to resolve inconsistency also depends on internal personality factors of the decision maker's. One of these is how much he or she relies on his or her own creativity as opposed to accepting outside judgments. Not only is the amount of integration widely different among individuals, it varies a great deal in the lifetime of the same individual. Typically, children are most prone to using univalent strategies. Aggregative strategies first emerge just before adolescence and integrative strategies during adolescence.

Now let's return to the Festinger-style, post-decisional form of cognitive dissonance. Psychological experiments on cognitive dissonance have only begun to address different types or levels of conflict resolution. The most common method of resolution is changing an attitude after one has acted in a manner contrary to the attitude. But the psychologists R. A. Elkin and Michael Leippe showed that in some cases, such attitude change doesn't relieve the physiological discomfort (such as skin response) caused by the dissonance! My unconfirmed speculation is that this experimental result reflects old folk sayings like "the body doesn't lie" and "one convinced against their will is of the same opinion still." Would a "higher level" of resolution reduce physiological measures of discomfort? There don't seem to be any results on this. But recent work of Leippe and his colleagues suggests that people adopt more elaborate methods of dissonance reduction, rather than simple attitude change, when they have greater emotional investment in the attitude involved.

For example, Margo Monteith induced white subjects who showed little anti-black prejudice to discriminate against a black person. These subjects had a great investment in seeing themselves as egalitarian and fair-minded, so were hurt deeply when made aware they had acted contrary to this self-image. As a result, most of them engaged in some elaborate cognitive restructuring by reading an essay about how easily people can fall into discriminating behavior and thinking about how that might be avoided. The long-term effect may be to enable these people to live more fully by their egalitarian beliefs. This kind of cognitive restructuring is less common when the issue involved is more trivial (e.g., imposing a small parking fee at a university). In the latter case, either the attitude may change or the dissonance may simply be forgotten.

But high levels of dissonance on important issues don't always lead to cognitive restructuring. They sometimes lead instead to emotional paralysis. The factors which make people resolve dissonance in one way or another haven't been studied much, but would seem to involve personality differences as well as social contexts. It seems likely, for example, that "higher levels" of resolution and more elaborate restructuring are associated with greater creativity. For example, Albert Einstein arrived at his theory of relativity through a lengthy process of cognitive restructuring. This occurred after he noted dissonances between the existing Newtonian theory and recent observations of other physicists, both of which he had strong investment in. Higher levels of resolving dissonance also seem likely to associated with greater self-actualization. Abraham Maslow noted that self-actualized people bridge dichotomies between important elements in their mental makeup (e.g., emotion and reason), rather simply living with the dichotomies or suppressing one side of them. So far, little has been done to integrate these three seemingly related areas of psychological study -- cognitive dissonance resolution, creativity, and self-actualization.[...]

Self-actualization as Optimal Cognition

Self-actualized people tend toward what Wegner and Vallacher called integrative strategies of absorbing conflicting information. Whenever possible, they resolve ambiguities in a way that synthesizes conflicting interests within the mind rather than choosing between them. This allows them to bridge typical dichotomies such as serious versus playful, masculine versus feminine, strong versus generous, rational versus emotional, by innovative solutions to complex problems. Maslow was among those who believe that human behavior is not necessarily, or even much of the time, optimal. He believed that only about one in a hundred people are fully self-actualized, but most of the rest of us achieve that level of function in fleeting, rare states that he called peak experiences. This suggests that our brains are all capable of being in optimal states but are not there all or most of the time. [...]

How Can Our Brains Meet More of Our Needs?

The theory that love and meaning are basic biological drives as much as food, sex, or safety fits into Abraham Maslow's idea of the hierarchy of needs. This idea has generated much controversy among scholars, with the sociologist Geert Hofstede and others showing apparent refutations of it in crosscultural studies. But Maslow emphasized that he didn't imply by hierarchy a strict all-or-none progression, as it is often misunderstood, just a tendency for some needs when pressing to override others.

Some personalities and cultures can more easily than others accept temporary dissatisfaction of a lower-level need in order to try to resolve the "whole picture" by meeting some of the higher-level needs. In his doctoral dissertation on the processes of choice, Sam Leven stated that there are three major styles of problem solvers:

"Dantzig" or direct solvers who try simply to achieve an available solution by a repeatable method;

"Bayesian" solvers who play the percentages and try to maximize a measurable criterion; and

"Godelians" who use both intuition and reason to arrive at innovative solutions. Godelians are risk seekers: they are more likely than the other two solver types to accept temporary cognitive and emotional discomfort in order to achieve high-level understanding. But they are more sensitive than the other types to cognitive dissonance at high levels.

[...] The orbital part of the frontal cortex has extensive feedback connections with the amygdala. The effects of connections from frontal lobes to amygdala would include the functions of the "world modeler" in that figure, and would also include controlling the strength of the "noise" signal from the discontent node. I suggest this because Brenda Milner and other clinical neuropsychologists have observed that many frontally damaged patients express frustration when they fail on a cognitive task. This frustration, however, doesn't make them change their behavior. This hints that the frontal lobes play a key role in translating emotional reactions into motor actions. The amygdala is also heavily influenced by synapses, from a region of the midbrain called the locus ceruleus, using the neurotransmitter norepinephrine (NE). In addition to enhancing novel or significant inputs, norepinephrine plays a role in generating cognitive attributions and beliefs. People or animals deficient in norepinephrine tend toward learned helplessness and lack confidence in their ability to influence events. A milder form of learned helplessness, with an intermediate NE level, could make people passive about satisfying higher-level needs if lower-level needs are already met. In other words, the person may feel confident about satisfying a limited set of needs, and so not be globally helpless, but still not feel confident about satisfying needs for meaning and self-expression. This is an emotional state characterized by effectiveness at basic survival but missing out on the richness of life. Henry David Thoreau called it "quiet desperation."

Self-actualization and Information Processing

[...]Another aspect of self-actualization is creative synthesis of previously conflicting concepts or beliefs. This kind of synthesis can be present to varying degrees in different people. The clinical neuroscientists Lynn Grattan and Paul Eslinger, by observing cognitive effects of damage to different brain regions, found that generating new concepts involves somewhat different brain pathways than deciding among old concepts. While decisions among old concepts involve connections between the frontal lobes and basal ganglia (the subcortical "decision area"), generation of new ones involves connections between the frontal lobes and other parts of the cerebral cortex where memories and associations may be stored. Figure 7.4 suggests a continuum of possible human behavior types from the most "disintegrated" to the most "integrated."

Self-actualization (creative synthesis)
Optimizing among a fixed set of rules
Entrenched Patterns (neurotic, bureaucratic, etc)
Stereotyped (e.g. obsessive-compulsive) behavior
Frontally damaged behaviour

Figure 7.4. Continuum of behavioral patterns from frontally damaged to self-actualized, with stereotyped or entrenched behavior in between.

Behavior of people with frontal lobe damage is at the bottom, with obsessivecompulsive or stereotyped behavior just above it. The next stage of integration consists of behavior based on winner-take-all (univalent, in the terminology of the psychologists DanielWegner and Robin Vallacher) choices to act strong or generous, playful or serious, and so forth. Entrenched neurotic patterns in individuals, or entrenched bureaucratic patterns in institutions -- the typical stuff of society's common nonsense -- are often like that. Still more integrated are choices based on rational judgment between a fixed set of alternatives, which are often analogous to Wegner and Vallacher's aggregative choices. Such rationally optimizing choices are often quite effective in moderately complex situations.

But if the claims of two paradoxical ideas, such as "strength" and "generosity," are strong enough, still more effective, though often riskier, choices are available from syntheses of the two alternatives. These are part of self-actualizing synthesis, which is at the top of the continuum. Synthesizing paradoxes leads to new, integrative ways of acting and thinking in many areas of life. One example is combining generosity and strength into being powerful so as to empower others. Another is combining playfulness and considerateness into "if it harm none, do as you will," a motto of the neoPagan religious movement. And this helps people see the possibilities of similar creative synthesis in our social institutions. We can then aspire to jobs for everyone that provide meaning as well as pay, politics that nourishes our sense of community as well as providing equal rights, and religious faith that encourages the search for truth as well as providing spiritual comfort. Such high-level syntheses involve a blend of rational, affective, and instinctive processes, that is, all of Paul MacLean's "three brains." This suggests, as does Figure 7.4, that such syntheses require the frontal cortex which is the chief communicator between the three brains. Different degrees of self-actualization lead to different ways to resolve ambiguity. An example is Eugene Gollin's study of evaluating the person who was both promiscuous and kind.

[...] All people, whether rigid or creative, follow "rules" of behavior in the broadest sense of the word. That is, they form some sort of criteria that help determine what actions they will or won't perform. But the more self-actualized a person is, the greater the complexity, abstraction, flexibility, or subtlety of the rules she or he will tend to follow. This also relates self-actualization to Sam Leven's "Godelian" or risktaking, innovative decision style described earlier. Since this process could involve many different dimensions of perceptual and cognitive experience at once, the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter called it a search of search spaces. [...]

[Source: Daniel S. Levine- Explorations in Common Sense and Common Nonsense ]