Contemplating Cognitive Dissonance

Contemplating Cognitive Dissonance May 13, 2019

By Cindy Kunsman

If we seek to gain more self-control when we experience cognitive dissonance, we need to understand how we respond to it.

Research in psychology and neuroscience continues to validate the original findings of the first study in the 1950s that birthed the now familiar term. Subjects were asked to perform monotonous, utterly pointless tasks while researchers pretended to observe them closely while furiously taking notes. At the end of the performance portion, the researcher asked each subject to tell the next participant that the study was engaging and fun. (They were asked to lie which would rattle their sense of consistency.) They then answered a battery of questions about their impressions of the study. The subjects were divided into two groups: one that paid subjects very well (a contemporary equivalent of $150), and one that paid only a minimal sum (the equivalent of $8).

 

The group that was paid well, but during the evaluation phase, the subjects in this group admitted how incredibly boring and useless it seemed. This group did not feel a great deal of stress, explaining that they perceived it as performing the job that they were hired and paid well to complete.

These subjects used rationalization to drop their cognitive dissonance, describing their lie as an ethical act in light of the circumstances. They discharged the stress that they felt by expressing their dislike of the study, and they assuaged their guilt with cash. They externalized their cognitive dissonance by attributing their discomfort to external factors imposed by them through the study.

The poorly paid group experienced far more cognitive dissonance than their well-paid counterparts. They chose to comply with the requests made of them, but they expressed that they enjoyed the monotonous of the study. In the absence of the external comfort of generous compensation for their time, the poorly paid subjects experienced more stress. They felt more responsible for the lie that they were asked to tell.

To save their ego for agreeing to participate in an utterly worthless investment of their time, they adjusted their thoughts. The idea that the study served no purpose bothered them, and their ego rose to save the day. They absorbed the disquieting feeling of dissonance, and they changed their narrative about it, redefining it as pleasant and enjoyable. They internalized their cognitive dissonance, assigning an attitude of pleasure to the experience through their own internal means.

Can it happen to me?

Consider how all of this might work in a church service with a pastor who likes to ask the congregation to ‘answer back.’ If you’re not familiar with this kind of church experience, you can likely find a televangelist who asks the crowd, “Can I hear an ‘amen’?” This is a request for behavioral compliance to which most people will yield. Sometimes, I think that it may be a tactic to keep people conscious during long discourses, but some ministers also ask people to raise their hands (“How many of you here tonight make payments on a car loan?”), or they ask the congregants to “repeat after me” as they recite a prayer, line by line.

Keep in mind that we humans like others to think of us in the same way that we think of ourselves, so we play along by conforming in the moment, not realizing that these small requests for compliance increase the likelihood that we will comply with future requests that will not be as trivial. You might choose to do what I do and refuse to comply with all such requests just because I understand this as a process of undue influence. What situations do you recall when you felt this kind of pressure to conform with seemingly harmless requests?

Further Reading:

Cindy is a nurse who was raised in Word of Faith, a Second Generation Adult of cultic Christianity. She and her husband dabbled in Calvinism and Theonomy as a foil to Christian anti-intellectualism, and they were exit counseled together when the walked away from a church that embraced Gothard’s teachings. Cindy escaped many Quiverfull pitfalls but became a social pariah for failing to birth a family. She’s been decrying the abuses of the Patriarchy Movement since 2004, and she writes about spiritual abuse at her blog, Under Much Grace. Read more about her here.

She blogs at Under Much Grace, Enmeshed for Jesus, and Redeeming Dinah.


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  • Appropriate graphics placed into the original post.
    Interim ones Deleted. Hmm. apparently, you can’t delete photos from comments. Good to know.

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  • Saraquill

    Places I have spent online pointed to the above cognitive dissonance as proof that they, non-Christians, are purer and superior. In the meantime, they express the same hateful patterns as those they speak against.

  • Jim Jones

    Humans are social species, hard wired to follow a leader – or sometimes be one.

  • Look up the Milgram Study, Cialdini’s Weapons of Influence, and the Appeal to Authority Informal Logical Fallacy for specifics on the factor of authority. I think that in years past with some of the earlier social psychology studies, they didn’t account for the patriarchal variable either.

  • Brian Curtis

    It’s true that this technique is a core element of ‘priming’ people for agreement, as in aggressive sales pitches (which is what preaching basically is). But we should acknowledge that requests for audience participation aren’t always malicious. It’s a standard technique in training, education, and even general public speaking to involve the audience and maintain their interest, even if your goal isn’t persuasion.

  • I agree, and like any tool, it can be used honorably or deceitfully. For those of us who exit cultic or high demand religious groups, we learn to ignore our own cognitive dissonance in order to survive the control tactics of spiritual abuse. We are habituated to ignore our better judgement to stay connected to those in the group and our investment in the ideological mission.

    Unless and until former members learn about the tactics, how they can work against a person’s own best interests, and how easily manipulators can capitalize on the human tendency, it hinders growth and healthy adaptation.

  • Any time anyone seeks to change a behavior, a pattern of thought, or emotions, they will encounter natural cognitive dissonance as part of the paradigm shift of cognitive-behavioral change. It isn’t a pathologic process at all, but developing self-awareness about the experience of it can be harnesed as information that can alert us to the shifting process.

    Great comment. (There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.)

  • Friend

    This reminds me more of corporate life than church. My thinking as an employee was, “I understand what we provide, and it deserves a place in the market.” At times, though, I knew way too much about the sausage-making process, and was not the least bit sure that the company across town was just as bad as we were.

    Worst were the places where I kept getting told to work to a lower standard, and to stop helping other colleagues with things I happened to understand. Helping in such ways was not my core responsibility, but I hated to say no if I had the time.

  • Friend

    Continuing to mull this over… Christianity has a built-in paradox: death leads to resurrection. In my humble opinion, this is a big reason why some Christians carry a “bad is good” mindset into other areas. Husband cheats? Good! Gives you an opportunity to pray, submit, sacrifice yourself, etc.