Cognitive Consistency and Cognitive Dissonance

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Cognitive Consistency and Cognitive Disonance

Can you solve this problem?


“I met my friend, a test pilot who had just completed an around-the-world flight by balloon.  With the pilot was a little girl of about two.

“What’s her name?” I asked my friend, whom I hadn’t seen in five years and who had married in that time.

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“Same as her mother’s,” the pilot replied.

“Hello, Susan,” I said to the little girl.

“How did I know her name if I never saw the wedding announcement?”

You will find the solution at the end of this article.

People prefer to receive incoming information that is consistent with their understandings of the world. When they experience inconsistencies, they are thrown into a state of disequilibrium or dissonance. This is referred to as cognitive dissonance.

We prefer what is referred to as Cognitive Consistency because it keeps us in a state of balance or equilibrium. In fact, we will do whatever we can to restore balance to our lives. Here’s a sample of an E.Mail a good friend recently sent to me:

“Did you ever get the feeling that the world is spiraling around you and you are detached from reality?  Lately, on occasion, I seem to be aware of circumstances that I cannot control but effect my very being.  It’s similar to feeling helpless in a raging fire.  The world has changed.  The United States has changed.  New York is in the throes of change.  I cannot fully accept the challenges of change that are an antitheses to my beliefs. I remain comfortable in some of the experiences I had as a young lad and I basically have the same values I grew up with.  I  frequently feel distant from the societal changes that occur at a rate that is almost exponential.

The author of the above quote is a senior citizen who grew up in a world with a set of values that no longer seem to hold true because so much has changed in the United States, New York and the world in general. What he feels is similar to being “helpless in a raging fire.” This is a good example of dissonance.

A classic story that depicts one of the ways we deal with dissonance when we come across it is the fable, The Fox and the Grapes.” The story comes from Aesop and is the origin of the term, “sour grapes:”

“In the story, a fox sees some high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When the fox is unable to think of a way to reach them, he surmises that the grapes are probably not worth eating, as they must not be ripe or that they are sour.”

This example follows a pattern: one desires something, finds it unattainable, and reduces one’s dissonance by criticizing it.”

I have met many people who exhibited rationalization as a way of diminishing the discomfort caused by conflicting ideas and facts. A prime example of this has to do with smoking cigarettes. That smoking causes cancer is a well established fact. Despite knowing this, people continue to smoke even though they want to live long lives. The two contradictory ideas: 1. I know smoking causes cancer and, 2. I want to live a long life, cause the unpleasant feeling of cognitive dissonance. How can smokers use rationalization to reduce disequilibrium? They can conclude that:

1. Only a few smokers become ill.
2. Cancer only happens to very heavy smokers.
3. If smoking doesn’t kill them, something else will.

Recently, I was involved in one of those political conversations that is best avoided because of the amount of tension that arises, even between otherwise good friends. In this conversation, two people got into a heated debate over conservative versus liberal politics in the United States. One of the two, an otherwise really nice guy, became angry and refused to have any further conversation on the issue. In fact, he firmly and absolutely stated, “For the sake of our long friendship, I suggest we no longer talk about this because I know where I stand and I will not budge.” He then walked away.

For many of us, when information comes in that is in direct contradiction to what we already believe, the new information is rejected. In many cases, this new information is not only rejected but the information or its source, is devalued and downgraded. In this case, the man who walked away said, “While I know you are not a fascist or racist, I know that you are getting this information from fascists and racists.” Any further or future discussion was shut off.

I do not mean to imply that it is wrong to use a variety of strategies to reduce dissonance. In fact, we need to. In the E. Mail example given above, my friend was stating his belief that life was better in the “good old days” as compared to now. This is a strategy that is neither harmful or unusual. It is only when other people are degraded that ways of reducing tension can be harmful.

This brings us to the solution to the problem at the start of this article:

The pilot was a woman and the mother of the child. That is how the friend knew the daughter’s name.  People don’t expect the pilot to be a female, because we tend to expect or consistently see that test pilots are males. 

Furthermore, it is inconsistent that the daughter is named after the mother, because, usually the son is named after the father.

This passage is a prime example of how people have certain expectations or consistencies about life.  However, the fact is that females are not only test pilots but military pilots as well, something we continue not to expect.

Do you experience cognitive dissonance?

Your comments and questions are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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