Theater Masks

Cognitive Dissonance

My Take

Cognitive dissonance is when you have two conflicting ideas and yet you have reasons to believe both. There are many many many reasons that appealing ideas can conflict, so we are constantly facing the prospect of cognitive dissonance, or more importantly how to resolve it.

Here are just a few examples that immediately come to mind:

  • A hedonistic goal (something is fun/pleasurable) conflicts with what I am instructed to do. I want to do what I am supposed to do for my job/family/legal system, but . . .
  • A hedonistic goal conflicts with an ethical value that I really believe in, but . . .
  • Scientific evidence supports a model of the world that my gut/religion/politics/philosophy opposes, but . . .
  • A person who I like (a friend) or want to like (overgeneralization of attraction) just did something I know is wrong (socially, legally, ethically), but . . .

These are all present tense examples. We can also experience cognitive dissonance about the past (two memories that seem real but conflict, a memory that conflicts with the evidence) or the future (two expectations that conflict, a plan that conflicts with a more realistic prediction).

One of my favorites falls directly into the category of self-delusion. You need to explain one of your recent and undeniable behaviors but it conflicts with the more logical and rational behavior or with what you were instructed to do. This comes up a lot in usability testing when we interview participants about their behavior during a task.

You know that I am interested in neuroscientific evidence and explanations for these phenomena because it helps us to verify that this is really happening, to understand what is happening, and to see how different categories are related to or different from each other. So I was happy to see this article in Scientific American Mind that describes some recent research on the topic.

What is the neural explanation for this common type of psychological stress? Thanks to advances in imaging methods, especially functional MRI, researchers have recently identified key brain regions linked to cognitive dissonance. The area implicated most consistently is the posterior part of the medial frontal cortex (pMFC), known to play an important role in avoiding aversive outcomes, a powerful built-in survival instinct. In fMRI studies, when subjects lie to a peer despite knowing that lying is wrong—a task that puts their actions and beliefs in conflict—the pMFC lights up.

The research team used fMRI to identify the brain regions that are involved in cognitive dissonance. It turns out that the posterior part of the medial frontal cortex is involved. What makes this relevant is that prior evidence shows that this brain area is involved in avoiding outcomes that threaten our survival. So perhaps the brain evolved to delude itself (ourself) so that we can do things like “go along to get along.” And to allow our System 1 instincts to override our System 2 logic, particularly when we have a sense that there are facts that the smaller capacity of System 2 is missing but System 1 might unconsciously know more about.

The study also found that cognitive dissonance activates dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This is an area involved in cognitive control. The activation suggests that we are trying to resolve the conflict. But this attempt might just be temporary – other studies have shown that when this region fatigues, our attempt at resolution does too. We simply justify the side that we prefer and leave it at that.

The study concludes that the way the brain handles cognitive dissonance might be adaptive. Some attempt to figure out the conflict is valuable. But if we can’t, being paralyzed by uncertainty is not helpful. So going along to get along or defaulting to our preexisting belief might be a more reliable solution than more study and analysis.

Your Turn

I am sure you can come up with several examples of cognitive dissonance of your own (hint, hint – add them to the comments please ☺). Other categories as well as good stories.

I am also interested in your thoughts on the neuroscience explanation. It is not proof for sure. But it is suggestive, isn’t it?

Image Credit: Palosirkka

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