Mr. S., a member of the Indian Communist Party came to the deaddiction centre to get admitted for the treatment of alcoholism. He told me that he was drinking alcohol very secretly because his party was against drinking and he wanted to get rid of addiction. He admitted to his feeling of guilt and was visibly depressed evidently due to a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance.
Leon Festinger’s contribution
Cognitive dissonance is a mental condition characterized by feeling of discomfort arising from holding conflicting ideas, beliefs, and values simultaneously. The people suffering from this discomfort have a motivational drive to reduce the mental tension arising from the cognitive dissonance by changing the existing cognitions (ideas, beliefs, and values) or adding new ones to create a no-conflicting belief system in their mind. The phrase was coined by the American social psychologist Leon Festinger (1919-1989) in his 1956 book titled When Prophecy Fails. This notable book chronicled the followers of a UFO Religion in the USA.
UFO religion is an informal term used to describe a group of people who believe the unidentified objects (UFO) come to earth carrying extraterrestrial (ET) beings that are interested in the well being of humanity. For the followers of UFO religion the ET beings are more akin to angels than physical aliens. They also believed in an impending apocalypse.
Leon Festinger and associates infiltrated a religious group that was expecting the imminent end of the world on a certain date. When that date passed without the world ending, the movement did not disband. Instead, the group came to believe that they had been spared in order to spread their teachings to others, a justification that resolved the conflict between their previous expectations and reality.
Cognitive dissonance in daily life
In daily life, smoking is a common example of cognitive dissonance because it is widely accepted that cigarettes can cause lung cancer, and smokers must reconcile their habit with the desire to live long and healthy lives. In terms of the theory, the desire to live a long life is dissonant with the activity of doing something that will most likely shorten one's life. The tension produced by these contradictory ideas can be reduced by any number of changes in cognitions and behaviors. Some may try hard to quit smoke. Those who fail in their attempt to quit smoking may rationalize their behavior by concluding that only a few smokers become ill, that it only happens to very heavy smokers, or that if smoking does not kill them, something else will. This case of cognitive dissonance could also be interpreted in terms of a threat to the self-concept of the individual. He may believe: “I am a smart, reasonable person who makes good decisions.” When he smokes the thought may arise: “I am increasing my risk of lung cancer.” This thought can be dissonant with self-related belief. It is often easier to make excuses or pass judgments that it is to change behaviour or values. Cognitive dissonance research contributes to the abundance of evidence in social psychology that humans are not always rational beings.
Cognitive dissonance distorts perception
Researchers have found that cognitive dissonance can affect a variety of human judgments, from estimates of statistical likelihood to social assessments, to self-image. Social psychologists Emily Balcetis and David Dunning have established that cognitive dissonance can affect the human perceptual system. The researchers asked the students who participated in the experiment to walk through the campus to cover a specific distance with an unappealing way to estimate themselves the distance they have covered. In this experiment the distance across a university quadrangle was to be covered by walking. They asked students to walk that distance, in full daylight, while dressed as Carmen Miranda: wearing a grass skirt, a coconut brassiere, and, of course, a giant fruit-laden headdress. Carmen Miranda is probably best-known today as the former spokesperson for Chiquita bananas, but she was equally famous as an actress, singer, and dancer in the 1940s and 1950s.
The key to the study was the students' belief that they had to do this. Some of the students were simply told that they were participating in an experiment about their reaction embarrassment and then told to put on the costume and walk across the quadrangle, after which they'd be quizzed about their reaction. Others were told they could either do the Carmen Miranda walk or some other (unnamed) embarrassing task. However, they were strongly encouraged to dress up in the fruity hat, and in fact, none of them chose the other task.
The students who believed they chose to dress up as Carmen Miranda estimated the length of the quadrangle as significantly shorter than those who were simply told to wear the costume. Another group of students was simply asked to estimate and walk the distance without the costume, and again, they believed the distance was significantly longer than those who thought they had chosen to wear the costume. Balcetis and Dunning say that this misperception of the distance (the quadrangle was actually 365 feet long) is caused by cognitive dissonance. Since they to walk in the costume, these students convinced themselves their decision must be rational: after all, it's not a very long distance to walk. They experienced less cognitive dissonance.
Brain centre for cognitive dissonance
|fMRI showing anterior part of Cingulate Gyrus|
Imaging studies with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) conducted by the Dutch neurologist Van Veen and his colleagues have established the front portion of the cingulate gyrus of the cerebral cortex is the brain centre of cognitive dissonance.