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Water Cooler: How we cope with conflicting information/why it’s hard to admit when we’re wrong


Nobody likes to admit when they’re wrong, but why? Everyone has experienced learning something new that contradicts their beliefs. It’s uncomfortable. This uneasy feeling in response to inconsistent beliefs or behaviors is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

The theory of cognitive dissonance emerged more than 60 years ago after Leon Festinger published, “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” in 1957. Festinger was an American social psychologist and in the 1950s he did something wild. With his collaborators Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, he infiltrated a small apocalyptic cult led by a suburban housewife named Dorothy Martin, who was identified in his studies by the pseudonym Marian Keech.

Martin claimed that a group of superior beings called “the Guardians,” from the planet “Clarion” had contacted her with messages about an impending flood that would destroy the world on Dec. 21, 1954. Several other psychologists and assistants joined the group to help observe the members for months prior to and following the predicted apocalypse.

Finally, that fateful day arrived. Some of the group members had abandoned their possession and quit their jobs in anticipation of these being saved from the flood by flying saucers. The supposed doomsday came and went and the group members were left with some explaining to do. Martin came to the conclusion that because the group had come together as a “force of good and light,” that the world had been spared. Rather than dumping the group after the predicted events failed to occur, conviction within the membership strengthened and their proselytizing intensified.

Festinger observed the group members’ coping mechanisms for resolving the conflict between their beliefs and their contradiction with the reality that the world did not come to an end that day. The theory of cognitive dissonance was born.

The unease of and reaction to cognitive dissonance can happen to anyone and it is often more subtle. “Cognitions” can be about anything – people, groups, beliefs, behaviors, feelings, perceptions or things in the environment. If two cognitions are in agreement, they are consonant. If they are in disagreement, they are dissonant. The mind has many ways of lessening the dissonance between two cognitions in order to ease the discomfort it causes.

The intensity of the dissonance depends on many factors, such as how many other cognitions it is in opposition with and how important they are to that individual. Dissonance can be minimized by adding more knowledge that is in agreement with one’s beliefs, increasing the importance of one’s beliefs or removing dissonant cognitions all together.

That said, sometimes the dissonance is recognized and people change or abandon whatever cognitive element they previously held. How hard it is to change your mind about something is what is referred to in psychology as resistance to change.

Resistance to change can be dependent on how much an individual identifies with a belief or behavior, how much satisfaction is gained from it and how much pain or loss would come from changing it. This means cognitive dissonance, although uncomfortable, isn’t entirely negative because it has the potential to lead to personal growth when it is recognized.

To illustrate his theory, Festinger used the example of a smoker who learns smoking is harmful to his health. Dissonance is experienced when the smoker continues to smoke anyway. The smoker could reduce dissonance by quitting, but that involves a certain degree of loss. Alternatively, the smoker could rationalize his continued behavior. Perhaps he chooses to simply believe otherwise, that smoking is not harmful. This eliminates the dissonant cognition. They could add consonant cognitions by arguing that smoking helps him reduce stress.

The smoker might reduce the importance of the dissonant cognition by arguing that everyone has a vice and there are worse things than smoking.

He could also increase the importance of the consonant cognition by considering how much enjoyment he gets from smoking and how it is an important element of his social life.

Maybe not everyone smokes, but seeing how the smoker negotiates through that dissonance is awfully relatable. We’ve all been there when new information gives us that “but” reaction. It’s nothing to feel bad about, but it can be a very handy thing to be aware of.

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