Cognitive dissonance

Blue GoldfishLet’s say you think of yourself as a good person (bear with me for a moment if you don’t). Now you do something nasty to somebody. This leaves you with two contradictory thoughts in your mind: “I am good” and “I am nasty”. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, “doublethink” is quite routine, but in practice conflicting thoughts are a source of discomfort. This discomfort is known as “cognitive dissonance”.

Even if you don’t think you are a good person, you are not immune from cognitive dissonance. It can arise in all kinds of situations: perhaps you hear a reasonable argument against one of your firmly-held beliefs, perhaps a decision you take turns out badly, perhaps someone you consider a friend lets you down or someone you dislike does something to help you.

Whatever the cause, our brains tend to work hard to “resolve” the dissonance and explain away the contradiction (that person really deserved the nasty thing you did). This tendency is the source of a wide range of irrational behaviour, many of which are explored in the book I am reading at the moment: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. The title itself gives just one example, the fact that we tend to explain away our mistakes: there were, of course, mitigating circumstances and were really all the fault of others.

One interesting theory in the book relates to prejudice. Stereotypes, particularly racial or religious ones, are often considered a contributing cause of prejudice. The authors suggest that the causality in fact runs the other way. People have a strong tendency to form groups and then feel not only a bond with others in the group but an antipathy to those outside the group. Obvious examples are nation, race, religion or football team, but group identification can be made in all kinds of ways. The book relates an experiment in which subjects were asked to estimate the number of dots shown on a flash card. After a preliminary round, each person was told whether they were an “under-estimator” or an “over-estimator”. As further tests were conducted, the results were announced to the group and in no time at all, under-estimators were cheering the successes of other under-estimators and boo-ing the successes of over-estimators, and vice versa. While under and over-estimators would never go to war, it is sobering to see how rapidly people can divide themselves into the in-crowd and the out-crowd. With this in mind, Tavris and Aronson argue that prejudice comes first, the result of disliking those outside your own group, and the stereotype comes later to explain this dislike:

By understanding prejudice as our self-justifying servant, we can better see why some prejudices are so hard to eradicate: They allow people to justify and defend their most important social identities‚ their race, their religion, their sexuality‚ while reducing the dissonance between, “I am a good person”‚ and “I really don’t like those people”.

So perhaps prejudice causes stereotyping not the other way around.

Like so many cognitive biases, the tendency to resolve cognitive dissonance is something you can take advantage of. Although Benjamin Franklin was around well before cognitive dissonance was given a name, he clearly understood the phenomenon. He relates the following story in 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 who you yourself have obliged.”

I am keen to try this trick myself, so if you don’t like me and want to keep it that way, think twice about doing me any favours.

Cognitive dissonance is a fascinating phenomenon, but simply studying does not make you immune from its grasp. Still, Tavris and Aronson suggest that there are ways to try to inoculate yourself:

We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off. This is especially important for people in positions of power.

That is advice I try to heed here on this blog. Whether I am arguing about property prices, government debt and deficits, climate change or any other topic, I welcome comments that argue against my position. I do not want to live in a bubble.

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18 thoughts on “Cognitive dissonance

  1. steve

    I enjoyed this post and I’m, interested in reading the book. The Benjamin Franklin anecdote reminded me of a Somerset Maugham short story “Portrait of a Gentleman” that I read many years ago but aspects of the story remain with me. In the story he discusses a book on poker, the card game, that contains observations on human nature. One of the observations is that a person will like a person that they have done them a favour for or something that will benefit the other person (as in the case described by Ben F.). It also points out that the converse also holds true, a person will not like another person that they have treated badly. If the observation is true then it has interesting ramifications for long term relationships/partnerships etc.

    Anyway, I enjoy your posts. Thanks for the effort.

  2. Ben

    Not sure if you’d read it, but a book I’d recommend covering some of these topics is “Being Wrong” by Kathryn Shultz.

  3. Magpie

    “It also points out that the converse also holds true, a person will not like another person that they have treated badly.”

    This is an interesting comment.

  4. Stubborn Mule Post author

    Steve and Magpie: the converse it rather disturbing. The book does discuss thus phenomenon, looking at the example of the developing bully who becomes more vicious as resolution if cognitive dissonance leads him/her to blame the victim.

  5. Magpie


    “The book does discuss thus phenomenon, looking at the example of the developing bully who becomes more vicious as resolution if cognitive dissonance leads him/her to blame the victim.”

    Does the book explain why the bully would blame the victim?

    The idea that comes to mind is that a passive individual, trying to take the abuse philosophically, could arise further anger on the bully, by being perceived by the bully as weak, for instance.

  6. Stubborn Mule Post author

    Magpie: Here is an extract from the book on the subject:

    Take a boy who goes along with a group of his fellow seventh graders who are taunting and bullying a weaker kid who did them no harm. The boy likes being part of the gang but his heart really isn’t in the bullying. Later, he feels some dissonance about what he did. “How can a decent kid like me,” he wonders, “have done such a cruel thing to a nice, innocent little kid like him?” To reduce dissonance, he will try to convince himself that the victim is neither nice nor innocent: “He is such a nerd and crybaby. Besides, he would have done the same to me if he had the chance.” Once the boy starts down the path of blaming the victim, he becomes more likely to beat up on the victim with even greater ferocity the next chance he gets.

  7. pfh007

    Economics is fertile ground for thinking about cognitive dissonance due its complexity, behavioural nature and the difficulty in satisfactorily testing economic ideas.

    In many cases a person’s outlook on economic issues appears to be strongly influenced by their personal background and life experiences.

    Thus anyone who thinks about economic issues is confronted regularly by things that do not quite fit their existing outlook.

    How they react to that dissonance is the key.

    Some will say the problem is solved by getting rid of square pegs.

    Some will accept the existence of square pegs and develop complicated explanations why the square peg really does fit into a round hole.

    Others will modify their outlook by the additional of caveats and modifiers to create a square hole for the square peg.

    Others will simply deny that the square peg is really a square peg and in fact what appears to be a square peg is really a round peg camouflaged as square by the media, political opponents or a trick of the afternoon sun.

    At various times they may all be right.

    As a consequence economics is always interesting.

  8. pfh007

    I wonder how that Ben Franklin story plays out in the context of a Social Welfare State.

    If people who do favours for others like the people they do favours for more than the people who have favours done for them like the people who do favours for them that may explain some common concerns about the social welfare state and welfare dependency.

    It may suggest that those who are beneficiaries of the welfare state do not really like the welfare state despite receiving its favours.

    In addition because the social welfare state is dispensing favours (taxes) that were extracted from the source under compulsion, the giver may not experience the sublime joys of the dude who lent Ben Franklin a book.

    Thus in the Social Welfare State we are left with disgruntled recipients and joyless donors.

    Somewhere in there are some square pegs and round holes?

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  10. Zebra

    I am in the middle of reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin prior to Sean’s post. Anyone who has spent a long period relying on social welfare like myself takes a different view than those who are paying for it. I had certainly paid my (considerable) taxes beforehand and therefore didn’t feel I was in any sense getting more than my fair share which is the underlying theme of your comment. But I would not deny anyone else who had to go through what I did – an extended period in hospital plus a long period of unemployment afterwards. I don’t personally care if they hadn’t contributed, like me, to the payments they later received. For me it is quite simple – I don’t want to live in a society in which I walk over people begging on the pavement on my way to work like I did in Boston on 1993.

    Ben Franklin lived in a time when there wasn’t enough money to go around for a welfare state in our modern terms. And that is what is key – we live in a much different, and richer, society. Sure there are problems with welfare but the basic idea is sound. Unless you think they deserve it – you know – someone who was born to a single, 16yo drug addicted mother in a ghetto.

  11. Zebra

    @sean – read “The Road To Wigan Pier” – it is a book, while less famous than “Animal Farm” or “1984”, is really Orwell’s masterpiece.

  12. pfh007


    “….therefore didn’t feel I was in any sense getting more than my fair share which is the underlying theme of your comment.”

    That wasn’t the underlying theme of my comment nor was I suggesting that I believe there is a problem in having a social welfare system. I was interested in whether Franklin’s comments might indicate some of the reasons that ‘welfare’ seems to be such a political and at times emotional issue.

    Personally I share your view of the welfare system and would have no qualms relying on it in the event that circumstances required – touch wood. For me it is simply a form of compulsory insurance without a direct relationship between premiums paid and claims made. Thus I don’t expect any Ben Franklin pleasure from contributing nor (I anticipate) any Ben Franklin displeasure from receiving.

    But it is clear that a lot of people do have negative feelings about receiving welfare ( even if you and I agree that they need not) and that may be related to the issue Ben Franklin referred to. They may perceive that they have received a favour or perhaps believe that others perceive they have received a favour.

    As for the lack of joy on the part of people who pay taxes that in part contribute to social security payments again I suppose it depends on how the tax payers views their contributions to the general revenue that is applied to social security. If they see it as a partial insurance premium they may ultimately personally benefit from then they would not see it as the doing of a favour for someone else and thus the Ben Franklin factor does not arise.

    Perhaps, even if they did see it as a ‘compelled’ favour to others, it would be a favour done nonetheless and they would feel a generalised form of the pleasure described by Ben Franklin. Though I suspect such people may be an unusual and quite rare type of tax payer.

    Possibly the best way to avoid any of the Ben Franklin issues in relation to social security, if you accept that they in fact arise (even if not personally), is to impress on people that social security is not a system of favours given or received but instead a system of insurance whereby in return for making a claim when circumstances arise you are obliged to contribute premiums (pay tax) as income level requires.

    For some the opportunity to contribute premiums may never arise and they will only make claims. But as you say, to have otherwise, would result in what you observed in 1993 in Boston, I observed in 1996 in San Francisco and no doubt could still be observed in too many places in the US in 2011.


    I found

  13. Stubborn Mule Post author

    @pfh007 your trailing “I found” has left me intrigued…what did you find?

    I have to agree with you that there is a lot of cognitive dissonance going on when it comes to economics. One manifestation of the resolution of cognitive dissonance is the confirmation bias and because the observed evidence in the field of economics is so much more complex and ambiguous than, say, physics or chemistry, there is plenty of room for an economist of any persuasion to selectively interpret evidence to reinforce their existing view (reminds me of this post from a couple of years ago.

  14. pfh007

    I found…… that it is quite difficult to compose in the box and not overlook bits from paragraphs that were revised and scrolled out of sight ! Best recollection is that ‘I found’ similar things in San Francisco in 1996.

    One thing that struck me about the homeless in San Francisco was the number of Vietnam Veterans. Guys who had been in the late teens /early twenties in the late 60’s who in 1996 were in their early – mid 40’s. I think 500,000 served in Vietnam and 50,000+ were killed. No doubt the number who were severely physically and psychologically injured would have been a significant multiple of the fatalities.

    The US may/will be confronted with a similar aftermath as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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