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In December 1954, a doomsday cult was awaiting the arrival of a UFO which would rescue the faithful.  Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, had infiltrated the cult to see how they would respond when the UFO failed to appear and the world didn’t end.  Remarkably, the cult emerged from their failed prediction with renewed strength, convinced that they had “spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”. Cognitive dissonance is a phrase coined by Festinger in 1956 to explain this sort of response.  It refers to the discomfort we feel when trying to simultaneously hold two contradictory ideas in our mind; we reflexively try to resolve this discomfort, often pre-consciously.  It’s a striking and elegant idea which can explain aspects of a wide range of seemingly strange human behaviours, from doomsday cults and initiation ceremonies to post-purchase rationalizations.

An early example is a study from the 1960s in which a group of women were invited to join a discussion group on the psychology of sex. They were told that they would have to read an excerpt of text aloud  before they could join in order to demonstrate that they weren’t embarassed to discuss sex. The women were randomly divided into two groups, one of which received a much more humiliating text for their audition.  The “audition” was staged and all of the women were allowed to join the discussion group, regardless of how they read; upon joining,  they discovered that it was going to be about the role of bird plumage in courtship (instead of something exciting and racy). Afterward, the women who had been through the more humiliating audition rated the group more highly than those who had been through the easy audition. The explanation for this has to do with the dissonance between the two ideas: (1) I am a decent, reasonable person who makes good decisions; (2) I have made a large sacrifice to join a group that I find uninteresting. Since people tend to cling to their self-image, this dissonance is often resolved by giving up the second idea and thinking that the group is, in fact, interesting.

The same logic can be applied to doomsday cults.  Festinger observed that when the promised apocalypse fails to materialize, core members of a doomsday cult will emerge with their faith redoubled rather than shattered; they may believe that it was their sacrifice and strength of faith that averted the disaster.  A similar example is initiation ceremonies  and other “group bonding” ceremonies in which prospective members undergo some kind of humiliation (often public and shared); the more severe or humiliating the initiation ceremony, the more strongly initiates tend to feel about the group.  Again, this is the result of an attempt to reconcile a dissonance between self-image and behaviour.

If someone has invested a great deal or endured significant loss or humiliation for something and then discovers it to be uninteresting or false, they are faced with a dilemma.  The conflict between their image of themselves as a reasonable, intelligent person and their decision to make sacrifices for something undesirable must be resolved.  A simple solution is convince themselves that whatever they sacrified for is worthwhile, regardless of any evidence to contrary.  The thing for which they have sacrificed doesn’t have to be a cause or membership in a group; it can also be a concrete object.  When someone buys something expensive and then refuses to recognize its flaws (or that they could have gotten a better deal), that’s cognitive dissonance at work.

Finally, a classic example from Bejamin Franklin. When he was in the Pennsylvania legislature he came up with an innovative way of dealing with a rival. From his autobiography:

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

The effectiveness of this approach is based on cognitive dissonance. Having loaned a valuable book to Franklin, the other legislator reconciles this with his image of himself (as a clever, reasonable person) by starting to think more highly of Franklin.

Of course, our behaviour is influenced by a wide range of factors, so it’s not usually as simple and straightforward as the examples given above.  Nevertheless, cognitive dissonance does seem to be able to account for some of the odd ways in which we seem to behave.  Understanding what motivates those behaviour patterns is both useful and enlightening.  It can also be fun to start noticing this kind of thing in yourself and the people around you!