Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Overcoming Cognitive Dissonance

"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1956, Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger heard about a group of doomsday cultists who were predicting that the Earth would be destroyed by aliens at midnight on December 21st of that year. Festinger and his students decided to infiltrate the group and covertly study what happens to people when their strongly held beliefs are disproved. What he discovered lead to the powerful and life enhancing theory of Cognitive Dissonance.

So what did happen, in the minutes and hours after midnight, when the prophesied destruction and the predicted appearance of alien spacecraft to save the faithful didn’t occur?

Initially there was shock and disbelief by the members of the group; many had left jobs, colleges and spouses to prepare to escape on the flying saucer supposed to rescue them. Within hours however, people began to deny they ever believed in the doomsday prophecy. They were saying things like “I didn’t really believe it, I was just going along for the adventure.” Or, “Because of our strong faith, the aliens chose to save the planet”. Basically, they said and thought anything other than the truth which was that they’d all been duped.

Based on this research and thousands of subsequent laboratory and real-world studies, Festinger posited that the unconscious mind does not like what he called ‘dissonance’ and will do anything to remove it. Dissonance is the disagreeable feeling we get when faced with mismatching cognitions or beliefs. Our mind likes harmony and congruence between our thoughts and beliefs and will utilise a number of unconscious strategies to remove cognitive dissonance. The tension of cognitive dissonance leads people to change either their beliefs and attitudes or their behaviour.

The importance of this is that it leads people to denying reality and deleting or distorting their cognitions and perceptions. Cognitive dissonance can be incredibly life denying if it leads to denial of reality and un-sane distortions or behaviours. Of course, cognitive dissonance is like any tool or process, it can be used positively or negatively.

For example, you can use cognitive dissonance and the unconscious mind’s response to it to assist you in a life enhancing way to positively align your thoughts, values and behaviour. However, when cognitive dissonance occurs outside your conscious awareness to minimise your life and lead you into ignorance then it is a dangerous enemy.

The key to using cognitive dissonance constructively is to be aware of what are known as ‘Dissonance Signals’ and track for them in your life. When you notice them, you need to pattern interrupt the typical dissonance removal strategies and replace them with more useful strategies and behaviours. To do this you need to know about Dissonance Removal Strategies and your own Dissonance Signals.

Typical Dissonance Removal Strategies

There are a number of unconscious strategies that people’s minds normally use to remove cognitive dissonance.
  • Avoidance – people avoid information that is likely to lead to dissonance
  • Distortion – people delete and distort facts and beliefs to reduce dissonance
  • Confirmation – people are attracted to or perform selective bias on information that confirms or bolsters their cognitions
  • Reassurance – people look for reassurance from others that their cognitions are correct and ok
  • Re-valuation – people change the importance of existing and new cognitions to reduce dissonance

You should also note that research has shown that the more effort and time invested in a decision or the forming of a belief, the larger the potential dissonance created if mismatching evidence is discovered. Therefore, the more important the outcome the more likely your unconscious mind is to perform the above strategies. For example, if you purchase a low cost item, you are unlikely to experience buyer’s remorse. However, for an expensive item that you spent a lot of time evaluating, you are more likely to experience buyer’s remorse and therefore more likely to go seeking confirmation and reassurance after the purchase.

By being aware that your evolved animal brain doesn’t like negative change, that it doesn’t like things that don’t match, you can begin to transcend this potentially un-useful pattern. The facts are our friends and knowledge is power. Denying reality and ignoring facts just because the evolved patterning system of the brain desires congruence, is dangerous and crazy. Use the following success strategy to learn about and track for cognitive dissonance signals and then support yourself in facing reality, in looking at all the facts and evidence. Don’t let your unconscious mind seduce you into the enemy of ignorance. Instead, build life enhancing patterns in your life of overcoming cognitive dissonance and using valid, valuable feedback and knowledge to gain greater happiness and meaning in your life.

Thinking Tools:
The facts are our friends!

Success Strategy – Tracking Cognitive Dissonance

1. Remember a time when you experienced cognitive dissonance. A time when you were faced with facts that challenged one of your beliefs, or a time when your behaviour didn’t match your values or self-concept. Role-play and re-live that situation. Fully access what you were feeling then, seeing then, hearing then and thinking then. Totally associate into re-living the experience now. Once you are totally in the dissonance state, track for and note what feelings you are doing in your body. Track all of the pressures, movements, flows, temperatures, textures etc. of the experience. Many people experience dissonance in the gut region or heart region. Notice also the submodalities of any pictures and sounds. Write these onto a piece of paper for you to remember.

2. Pick two other cognitive dissonance experiences/times and note the dissonance signals for these. You should find that the three experiences have similar signals and components.

3. Determine what the main indicators are for the state of cognitive dissonancing. Think about how you can now remember the signals so that in the future you will know when you are doing dissonance and be able to become more aware of your own unconscious processes.

4. Think about what you can do to overcome cognitive dissonance in a positive way, without giving in to it. What can you say to yourself? What can you do to support pushing through the dissonance to face reality and not deny it?

5. One very powerful way to overcome dissonance is through humour. By laughing at the dissonance feeling, by seeing it as humorous, you can shift your cybernetic loop to one of positive feelings. Anything that helps you overcome the negative emotions of dissonance will help you push through and stop the typical dissonance strategies.

6. Finally, by being aware of the possibility of cognitive dissonance and knowing your dissonance signals you can float above the dissonance feelings by just acknowledging them and telling yourself “Oh, that’s just cognitive dissonance – I can ignore and transcend it, it’s just an animal response, I’m better than that!

Well, there you are, a quick primer on the powerful process of Cognitive Dissonancing. I hope you found it interesting and useful. It can be truly life enhancing to be able to track for and control dissonance in your life, your mind and your world.

life enhancing thoughts and wishes,


  1. Really interesting post. I've seen examples of this in my life a lot.

  2. Great post! Great explanation of cognitive dissonance. I am confused, though, about the ease in which you believe dissonance can be remedied. I'm not seeing much progress with public acceptance of global climate change, for example. Any shortcuts?

    Is cognitive dissonance some of what alcoholics face? If so, are there physiological processes that must be overridden in order to change our behavior (in addition to what we currently believe to be addiction responses?



    1. I too am interested in this area, particularly why right wing authoritarians suffer from this dissonance when confronted with the human influenced climate change paradigm. We see the dissonance, but exactly what is the reason for it? I have seen a common thread of religion for example where people evoke god and the creation myth when exhibiting cognitive dissonance for this reason. Here is a good example of that, where Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma talks about it on YouTube. Is it that Jim cannot comprehend that his idea of a god would allow humans to change his creation? What are the exact cognitive dissonance stimuli?



    2. Cognitive dissonance is experienced on both extreme sides of the Climate debate. There have been studies using brain imaging comparing Conservatives and Liberals as binging in denial and delusion respectively. Each extreme viewpoint may be viewed as a result of CD. I personally want to see the test results for all SCIENTISTS weighing in on the debate as to Physical structure of their brain, functional structure of their brain and SPECT results. The results may be an indication of self fulfilling prophesy research results and false Attributions in their conclusions. BOTH sides. This process may give the debate a way to weight the data. There is a long history of false attributions in science. After all, everyone knows the world is flat and the earth is the center of the Universe. (-; Many "facts" have become (dysfunctional??) beliefs in the short history of human existence.

  3. I think this is a really helpful examination of how cognitive dissonance occurs in real-time. In my own life I'd been aware of a few extreme and traumatic instances of this, and recently come to an understanding about how it occurs and steals power within everyday moments. It's become truly disabling for me, with things such as severe depression being only the outer layers of what is intrinsically this, simply. This which I only recently found a name for, and any existing body of knowledge. I'm in a state of full understanding of when it's present for me, but it's been in such full force and existing as a stronghold within itself that strategies for overcoming are pretty disempowered at this point. Still looking though! Thanks again for this sharing this valuable insight.

    1. Hi River of Sight, thanks for your great comments on my blog post. I'm sorry to hear you've been experiencing such traumatic and extreme examples of cognitive dissonancing in your life. One of the things that can cause this level of disablement is when your head brain and gut brain are unaligned. Or when your head and heart are incongruent in how they are processing the world. You might want to get a copy of my book 'mBraining' (www.mbraining.com) and take a read. I talk about the process of cognitive dissonance in the book and processes for dissolving it.

      best wishes,

  4. This website is a geat find and I shall be posting it many times all over the place.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Astraea, thank you so very much for your kind words and feedback. And yes, appreciate you spreading the word.

      best wishes, Grant

  5. another way to remove dissonance is meditating, you realize all the wrong are actually perfect as they are.


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