A look at cognitive dissonance
Reducing inner conflict can spell trouble later on
by Barry Gilbert, MD
Vol.16, No.07, July 2008

In the last scene of the classic movie Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman’s character is in love with a bar owner played by Humphrey Bogart, although she’s married to Victor Laszlo, a hero of the resistance. There are 2 passports to get her and Victor to freedom, but she longs to stay with the man she loves. Bogart tells her, “Go with him. If you don’t, you might not regret it today, maybe not tomorrow or the next day, but soon you will; and for the rest of your life.” It’s a wonderful moment in film; however, according to the theory of cognitive dissonance, he was dead wrong. She might indeed have thought about it for a few days or weeks, but soon, and for the rest of her life, she’d have felt her choice was right, regardless of which one it was.

Torn between opposing views

Cognitive dissonance was first described by the social psychologist Leon Festinger at Stanford University, originally to understand why members of a cult with a leader whose apocalyptic prediction had been spectacularly wrong, still stayed with him. This work is updated in a new book by psychologist Elliot Aronson, called Mistakes were made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts. Cognitive dissonance has some of the strongest research evidence of any concept in social psychology. It says that if we’re faced with 2 contradictory ideas, the resulting inner psychologic tension activates attempts to reduce that tension, usually by altering the memories of those facts. Researchers believe that this ability to reduce inner turmoil has an evolutionary advantage and has been hard-wired into us.

Consider the man who can’t stop smoking, despite being aware of how harmful the habit is. Rather than change his behaviour, he alters his beliefs, telling himself that the evidence for the hazards of smoking has flaws; if he stops, he’ll gain weight, which can be dangerous for his heart. So, he comes to a state of peace with the status quo. Sound familiar?

The book’s title is from a comment made by Henry Kissinger, referring to a time when he was simultaneously Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense in the administration of Richard Nixon. It’s hard to see how any foreign policy decision made then did not include his input. The processes to reduce cognitive dissonance function outside of our awareness, though, and Aronson suggests they were hard at work in Kissinger, perhaps allowing him to accept, apparently without irony, the Nobel Peace prize in 1973.

Sometimes, for psychodynamic therapy to succeed, the slow dismantling of cognitive dissonance reduction is needed to re-open old choices and beliefs to allow for new, healthier solutions. People who can’t reduce their cognitive dissonance struggle with what was once called neurosis — constant inner conflict.

In contrast, Aronson notes that many of us feel that most of the decisions we’ve made in life — whether career, divorce, or partner — were for the best. Reducing cognitive dissonance lowers stress and helps us sleep at night, but it can lead to the rationalization of decisions and choices that are much more problematic than we can allow ourselves to believe.

Barry L. Gilbert, MD, CCFP, FRCPC is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

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