Cognitive Dissonance

03.11.2018 |

Episode #8 of the course Most brilliant social psychology experiments by John Robin


Welcome to the last stretch of our course. As we wrap up, we’re going to focus on my three favorite studies. Today’s is a popular psychology term you’re probably familiar with: cognitive dissonance.


When Prophecy Fails …

What happens when you believe in something so much, you’re willing to dismiss reality?

In 1954, Leon Festinger wanted to explore this. His object of study: a small UFO cult called the Seekers. The Seekers believed a catastrophic flood was imminent, but that spacemen would extract the true believers from the earth, much like the Biblical story of Noah. The cult’s leader, Dorothy Martin, influenced by a branch of Scientology (called Diagnetics), began to receive what she believed were messages from the spacemen through a form of automatic writing—meaning she would begin writing and believed the words she was being inspired to write were directly being channeled from their leaders (on the planet Clarion) about the impending apocalypse.

The world was going to end on December 21, 1954, and every member of the Seekers, being true believers, was getting ready. They even left their jobs and families, gave away money, and parted with belongings.

Festinger, however, was not interested in whether Dorothy Martin’s automatic writings were accurate. He was a psychologist, working with a team of two other psychologists, and he wanted to examine the individual members of the cult over time to see how they would cope after they realized their prophecy was wrong.

By midnight of December 21, 1954, the world still had not ended. At 12:10 am, the group, gathered together and ready to be taken away, was concerned. It was not until 4:45 am that their leader at last received another “message,” this one from the God of the Earth: The faith demonstrated by this group of true believers had spread so much light into the earth that the coming disaster had been averted. By afternoon of December 22, the cult’s mission had evolved, and they moved from preparing for the end of the world to spreading their message of hope to the world. The leader changed her name to Sister Thedra and continued to practice as a channeler of extraterrestrial entities until her death in 1992.

One main variable Festinger and his colleagues measured was the so-called “foot in the door paradigm.” Part of Self-Perception Theory (SPT), this relates to the level of commitment members had to their belief at different points leading up to—and following—the failure of their beliefs.

It was from this study that Festinger proposed his now-famous cognitive dissonance theory: When members of the cult crossed the line by sacrificing family, jobs, money, and belongings, the idea that their commitment to the belief might be false leads to extreme anxiety, and the only way over that is to modify the belief to justify the sacrifices. In broader terms, his study was the first (of many more to come) to show some of the mechanisms at work behind members of cults or extreme belief systems and why people will maintain a belief that leads to extreme conflict.

Cognitive dissonance can be applied to more than just extreme belief systems. Smoking is a good example. Smoking has been shown to cause numerous health complications, often tied to cancer. However, people who smoke will make justifications for why they still have to smoke despite the consequences. They will struggle with the clash between reason and the belief in their need for the comforts they associate with continuing their habit.

Festinger followed up with another experiment in 1959, where he asked 71 male students to take on a dull task: turning pegs in a board for an hour. They had a choice: Do the task and earn $1, or go into the waiting room and lie to the next participant by telling them the task was lots of fun. They would be paid $20 for that.

Most participants took the $20. Their justification was that getting more money was worth lying. The few who stayed and earned the $1 justified that the tasks were fun. In both cases, the experiment further demonstrated how we all have natural mechanisms for coping with cognitive dissonance, by way of modifying beliefs to reduce anxiety that arises around where they might form contradictions.

Now that you know a bit about how cognitive dissonance works, see if you can spot it in your own daily life. We all are under its sway!

Tomorrow, we’ll move onto our second to last topic: the halo effect.


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Recommended book

When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger


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