10 December 2009

Cognitive Dissonance Explains It All

In the course of making fun of Ann Althouse for voting for Obama on the assumption that he was lying about his belief in God, I had a minor epiphany.

When our intentions, attitudes and behaviors don't match, we suffer from cognitive dissonance, which turns out to be a pretty powerful force. It is not, though, generally powerful enough to change our behaviors, so most often we avoid dissonance by changing our attitudes and/or intentions. So even if Obama joined the church as a cynical move to find a political power base in Chicago, years of attendance combined with his intention to live an authentic black life in America, would cause cognitive dissonance most easily eased by changing his attitude and believing in God.


PJ said...

Althouse is going overboard in construing Obama's speech as an insult to atheists. One can believe that atheists are influenced by God though they do not believe in Him; and therefore nothing about Obama's statement implies that atheists must "stew off in a corner somewhere" for lack of the divine spark. No, they have the spark, and do good because of it, without knowing that God has contributed to their goodness.

Bret said...


I suspect it's not as easy as you think to change one's attitude and start believing in God if one doesn't already.

erp said...

Perhaps one can believe in God as a working hypothesis without the deep emotional commitment believers experience.

I can't say if it eventually develops into something more. It hasn't for me.

David said...


We like to think that attitudes lead to intentions lead to behaviors. But it is pretty clear that to avoid cognitive dissonance we will adjust our attitudes if we have to.

For example, one study looked at men who had enlisted in the army during the Vietnam war in order to avoid being drafted. (Enlisting gave the soldier more control over his assignment.) Once birthday lottery numbers had been assigned, so that the enlistees knew whether they had made a good bet or not, they were surveyed on their attitude towards the army. Those who lost the bet (wouldn't have been drafted) felt significantly more positive towards the army than those who won their bet. Neither group could change their behavior, but the group who won their bet felt no cognitive dissonance: their behavior was fully justified by the fact that they avoided being drafted. Those who lost the bet, on the other hand, did suffer from cognitive dissonance -- until they adjusted their attitude towards the army upwards. Then their attitude justified their behavior and they felt "lucky" that they had lost their bet.

It's possible that someone who put himself in a position to attend church every Sunday for decades could remain a skeptic in private, but it's harder than you think.

erp: How do you know that most believers aren't just like you?

erp said...

David, I can't know what's in people hearts, so if they say they're true believers, I believe them.

Harry Eagar said...

I question whether people routinely act to resolve cognitive dissonance. I'd say most of them just live with mot of it most of the time.

But then, I just finished reading Gregory of Tours's 'History of the Franks,' and that man was a champion of cognitive dissonance, and there's no sign he acted to resolve it between 573, when he started writing, and 591, when he stopped.

joe shropshire said...

Harry, bubele, old love. You are a guy who proudly proclaims himself a Liberal, the very center of political virtue. You're a guy who can sit there with pupils the size of pinpoints, explaining how great it would have been if Zhukov had put Patton in a cage, which he coulda, if only they woulda letim atim. You're a guy who thinks the Great Leap Forward, was a silly thing, not a murderous or barbarous thing but a silly thing. You're a guy who thinks that Debs was a victim of Wilson, not a defeated rival, but a victim. You're a guy who thinks Bukharin was a victim of Stalin; again, a victim, not just a guy who lost. You can't see anything wrong with the way newspapers are run, except that they are run by rich guys. You are walking cognitive dissonance. You are projection and denial and every other piece of character armor known to psychology, with flat feet, and halitosis, and a ginormous pile of used books.

joe shropshire said...

There is nothing wrong with being a solid hard-nosed old lefty. There is something more amusing than wrong, but still a little bit wrong, with being at once too proud and too ashamed to admit the obvious fact.

joe shropshire said...

"Simultaneously too proud and too ashamed" being the sentiment at the root of a lot of cognitive dissonance, I should think. Most people can reliably align their beliefs in the direction that yields the better-paying job, and peace around the dinner table. Other folks think too much.

erp said...

Definition of a leftie* -- One who can hold two opposite and opposing opinions at the same time.

*and apparently those practicing cognitive dissonance

Harry Eagar said...

Joe, when did I ever say it would have been great for Zhukov to put Patton in a cage. I said he could have done it, which is -- given the fact it wasn't tried so we don't know for certain -- a high-probability guess.

I don't think it would have been great, but people who think it couldn't have happened merely because they would have disliked the outcome are the cognitively dissonent, in my book.

Cognitive dissonance is going to war in Iraq expecting to be loved for it.

erp said...

Bush went to war with Iraq because he thought it was the right thing to do, he knew that he wouldn't be loved for it. In fact, I'll bet he knew he'd be vilified for doing it and did it anyway.

Zhukov could have put Patten in a cage only if the U.S. military said he could -- another high probability guess is they wouldn't have.

Hey Skipper said...

Atheism is not the same thing as adeism.

Obama's remarks on religion were delusional; on the divine, they were trivial.

So, as an atheist, I find Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith — for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. silly beyond belief, because it requires ignoring the other rule has lain at the heart of every major religion: convert or kill the unbelievers.

For one major religion, the past tense is wrong.

That anyone takes offense to So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.... is a real mystery.

It would not be out of place in the last chapter of Sam Harris's "End of Faith". I don't recall any atheists getting annoyed about that.

Hey Skipper said...


For example, one study looked at men who had enlisted in the army during the Vietnam war in order to avoid being drafted ...

I'm not sure that has anything to do with cognitive dissonance. One thing that characterizes well adjusted people is that they get what they want, or want what they get.

Focusing on the positive doesn''t mean that the negative has been wished away.