I've given up on trying to use (or understand) the term "cognitive dissonance" in conversation...

I’ve read the wikipedia page that seems to define it, but it’s like every world-class scientist ganged up on that one wikipedia page to write the definition and background of it, so now my head hurts.

I still have no idea what exactly it means, or how to use it in a sentence. (Is it something you “are”? or something that you “have”?)

I see that term thrown around on many of the left-leaning Facebook pages that I follow (granted, not the best cite ever), but in my honest opinion, if a middle-class schmuck (like myself) wants to tell me over beers that he loves Trump “because of the tax cuts”, I’m not sure if the phrase “no dude, you have cognitive dissonance, those tax cuts don’t impact schmucks like me and you” makes any sense at all.

{And I swear that’s just a stupid example, I really don’t want to turn this into an argument pro/con Trump - plenty of other threads for that}

How about this one: what if I constantly bitch and moan about how I don’t have abs like Ryan Gosling, but yet I make sure I always have a 12-pk of beer in the fridge, and I order carryout-pizza three times a week? Does that mean I am / have / cognitive dissonance?

Or, if I spend as much time fucking off at the office as possible (browsing Facebook / SDMB / fantasy football sites) when the boss ain’t looking, but then get pissed off when other people get raises / bonuses, does that mean I am / have cognitive dissonance?

I forget what movie it was where a lawyer says “ok, explain it to me like I’m a three-year-old”, but that’s kind of where I’m at with this one. Thank you for any insight.

Cognitive dissonance is when you believe two (or more) contradictory things.

It might help to think about how people resolve the dissonance. For example, one might believe:

  • Fat people are fat because they eat so much and have no self control
  • I’m fat, and I eat junk food, but that’s not why I’m fat

These seem to be contradictory views. And the way it is likely to be resolved is with special pleading–I’m special, my metabolism is different, I don’t actually eat that much, everyone cheats on their diet sometimes, etc. It takes some mental effort to maintain this series of excuses, but for whatever reason the person doesn’t want to relax the original beliefs: either say that fat people all have their own good reasons for being fat, or that I’m really just making excuses and that I’m just as bad as other fat people.

A political example would be someone that believes that poor people who take food stamps, welfare, etc. are all leeches; but at the same time using those same services. As always, the excuses vary: I paid my taxes and am just getting something back, I really need food stamps but the others don’t, I’ve got kids to feed and deserve some support, etc. It’s never further examined that many of these excuses might apply to other people on welfare.

I would say your examples aren’t quite cognitive dissonance unless there was an element of self-deception. If someone is complaining about their figure, but honest about how eating pizza all the time isn’t helping, that isn’t really cognitive dissonance. If they deliberately ignore that Gosling spends hours at the gym, and that even if he eats a pizza he’s likely to burn it off in short order, that’s probably cognitive dissonance.

Though not all people are so introspective that they even have to deal with the contradiction. “God answers our prayers if we truly believe” and “God knows best, and if someone dies it is just God’s will” can be believed simultaneously, but can’t really both be true. It’s much easier to simply not examine the beliefs than it is to try to resolve them. Since each belief does not contradict anything in isolation, one can simply believe one or the other depending on the situation.

I actually think a certain level of cognitive dissonance resolved through special pleading is necessary for the maintenance of a “healthy self-delusion”. This constant schism between the way we see the world as outside observers and how we see the world as active participants serves as a low-level but ever-present source of cognitive dissonance that can actually help us succeed in life. If you don’t believe you’re different, more special in some sense, than others then you’ll be less confident in your abilities to be the best in what you do. Or something like that. It’s a survival mechanism of sorts.

OP, good for you. Understanding that you don’t really understand something is a good thing. In many cases when somebody starts bandying about terms they’ve read on wikipedia, they also have no clue. They just want to appear “clever” by pointing out somebody else’s perceived “faults”. There’s really no need to use the term at all, just express your opinion without throwing in what may well be an unwarranted conclusion and which will only start a (stupid) argument along the lines of “am not!” “are too!”.

Listen to a few episodes of the Cognitive Dissonance podcast.

You’ll become more comfortable recognizing and discussing cognitive dissonance, plus it’s fun. In addition, one of the hosts is the author of The Skeptic’s Creed.

Religion and politics are full of this.

E.g., the person who claims to be a good Christian but is racist, nasty, etc. They believe that rich people are good and poor people are beneath contempt. No amount of point out specific sermons and sayings of Jesus have any affect on them.

Ditto politics. The book and documentary What’s the matter with Kansas? highlight some of this. People are asked about issues that significantly affect their lives (esp. economics) and then who they vote for. Sure enough, they are voting exactly for the people that are voting against them on those issues.

Repeated tax cuts/tax breaks for the rich means your taxes are going up if you aren’t rich. Some of it is hidden by higher deficits. So you might get a token couple hundred dollars this year but down the line you will pay thousands to make up for it. The rich won’t. The money has to come from somewhere. That somewhere is your pocket. I have no idea why well over half of the country doesn’t seem to get this.

Cognitive dissonance is something that you have. All that it really means is that you believe two contradictory things to both be true. It is very common and I would go so far as to say that most people have some ideas that are cognitively dissonant. Politics and religion are where people bring it up the most and frequently what they bring up isn’t actually cognitively dissonant, but willful misinterpretation of ideas or failing to realize that valuations of particular circumstances are subjective, but nonetheless… An example might be “I believe in free market capitalism. I also believe we should raise tariffs.” These are two contradictory statements. (Not quite cognitively dissonant because neither of those statements is a true absolute since what you could be saying is “I mostly believe in free market capitalism and I only think tariffs should be raised in rare circumstances.”) If you were to take both of those statements as complete absolutes, a person holding them would be cognitively dissonant-you would be saying I believe that markets should be regulated. I also believe markets shouldn’t be regulated.

A common cause of cognitive dissonance is when you have a belief, but new information arises that you accept as true that disproves your belief, but nonetheless you hold on to the original belief. An example of this might be
A:“I believe that planes are much more dangerous than cars.”
B:“Here are statistics that say that cars are much, much more dangerous.”
A:“I believe your statistics, but nonetheless I believe that planes are much more dangerous than cars.”

ftg actually brings up exactly my point from above that most things that are said to be cognitively dissonant are not.

For instance, a good Christian that is racist. FTG is defining what a ‘Good Christian’ is and then saying that racism is not part of that (As a Christian, I completely agree with that definition.) It is not cognitively dissonant though because we don’t know how the person holding the beliefs defines a ‘good Christian’ nor how they define ‘racist.’ We don’t know what they believe regarding Christ’s messages. Bob could call himself a ‘good Christian’ and define that as ‘a guy who accepts general precepts of Christ’s teachings except where they concern equality.’ Him being a racist and as he defines it a ‘good Christian’ would not be cognitively dissonant. I think that he’s cherry picking beliefs, but that’s not dissonant; it’s something else.

In a different vein, voting against what someone else perceives to be your interests is not cognitively dissonant. For instance, we’ll keep picking on the right here. Bob could say that they want their wages to grow. ftg could say that Republican policies don’t lead to wage growth. Bob could vote Republican anyway. There are lots of reasons why this isn’t necessarily cognitively dissonant. Bob may not accept ftg’s claim about those policies. Bob may accept it in the short term, but think that in the long term he’s incorrect. Bob may completely accept it in both the near and short term, but simply think that other things that candidate stands for are more of a priority. You may say, “Well, some of those beliefs of Bob’s are simply incorrect.” You might be right, but as long as Bob doesn’t BELIEVE them to be incorrect, then it isn’t cognitive dissonance.

Maybe I’m oversimplifying things, but isn’t cognitive dissonance when something an individual absolutely knows as a fact is contradicted by objective reality?

My go to example being the communists put in charge of various Eastern European countries after WWII who believed honestly and fervently that communism was the future and that the working class would choose it eagerly if they could just get out from under the heel of the oppressors… and then they lost the first round of free elections. Leading to communists who believed honestly that communism was the people’s choice, but didn’t hold free elections anymore.

Your definition is right, but your example might not be.

It would be cognitively dissonant if they felt that the people were truly not under the heel of the oppressor anymore. They could believe that the votes were manipulated in some way or fed off of fears planted by external forces that essentially functioned as a new type of oppression. They could believe that the choice was not a free choice at all due to ingrained brainwashing and misinformation from ‘evil capitalists.’ Thus they could still believe that if given a ‘truly’ free choice the people would choose communism, but their choice was not ‘truly’ free and thus it was up to the leadership to act on their ‘truly’ free choice.

You might disagree with the assessment or the facts, but that doesn’t make it dissonant unless they truly believed the elections to be the ‘true’ will of the people.

Of course, it should be noted that this is a normal thing with cognitive dissonance. A person will attempt to resolve it by justifications. So for instance, when the election is first held, it could produce cognitive dissonance since they don’t have the belief that the election was not ‘true.’ They could then resolve the dissonance by changing their belief to it not being a ‘true’ free choice. This is typically how cognitive dissonance works. It’s a brief discomfort that we resolve relatively quickly by adding provisos to our old beliefs or disregarding the new information in some way - perhaps by finding flaws in it.

My favorite example is the person who believes in determinism. Such a person still has to live daily life making choices.

but isn’t cognitive dissonance something an individual absolutely knows as a fact contradicted by objective reality?

I’d say that’s a good working definition. It’s not just a matter of irony that a person believes in two contradicting beliefs, as in the OP’s example of the Trump fanboy who likes him “because of the tax cuts”, despite the fact most of them are going to the very wealthy already wanting for nothing and that the positive effects of them on the fanboy will be small and short lived. That fanboy needs to actually realize this…AND…be troubled by this conflict. That’s the key: If he doesn’t feel this conflict, there is no cognitive dissonance.

In real life, we may have felt/experienced cognitive dissonance many times, and note many others who might. Things such as:

  • Maybe a person who covets and intents to purchase a certain kind of hyped up ballyhooed product, one which might even be a status symbol, like say an “Excelsior XYZ” luxury car, buys one, but finds that it’s expensive to maintain and has various mechanical issues. He knows the hype was, well, just hype, but is loath to admit this car is overrated because he is “supposed to” like it, and he’s bragged to all his friends that how great the car is. this inner, ulcer producing conflict is cognitive dissonance.

  • Maybe he’s bragged to his friends he’s going to a much hyped-up high-end restaurant, and when he goes, actually finds the food and service is not what he expected. he “knows” that “this is a great place” but he actually knows it’s really not. This bothers him: Should he tell his friends he’s been had? Should he just say he went there, and leave it at that?

Addendum to above post: ( Forgot to include )

The inner conflict this person in the above examples feels:

Did you buy it because you like it? - OR - Do you like it because you bought it.

That’s not an example, because they feel OK about it, it’s you who doesn’t like it. Not cognitive dissonance unless THEY feel it.

Yours aren’t quite cognitive dissonance though; it’s more like the situation where you’re disappointed when something doesn’t match up to expectations which isn’t quite the same thing.

Cognitive dissonance would be if someone believes themselves to be industrious, motivated and smart, and also holds that poor people are always shiftless and lazy and stupid, and then suddenly finds themselves to be poor. They can’t hold both the belief that they’re industrious motivated and smart, as well as know that they’re poor at the same time.

What happens then is that they usually rationalize away one or the other of the conflicting beliefs- they tell themselves that this is temporary and that they’re not “really” poor for example.

I saw a great example on Facebook today–football players take the knee to protest random killings of POC by law enforcement. Right wingers loudly proclaim that taking a knee during the national anthem is demonstrating disrespect to the flag and to military veterans and will not be persuaded that the protest has nothing to do with “supporting our troops.” Cue a picture of military veterans in uniform taking a knee during the pledge of allegiance at a city council meeting specifically to support the athlete’s protest against racial injustice. When someone who has been loudly insisting that the take a knee protest = disrespect of military veterans and is therefore a Bad Thing sees military veterans joining in that protest–that’s gonna give them a dandy case of cognitive dissonance. They are going to have to let loose of one or another diametrically opposed beliefs–either admit the protest is NOT about disrespecting veterans or actually disrespecting veterans themselves by objecting to those veterans joining in the take a knee protest. That’s gonna be a bitch to resolve.

Those are not the “real” Troops. Those are the Deep State embeds who are tasked with rotting from the inside-out the institutions they want to destroy and remake in their socialist visions. Namely, the troops who are proving his certainties re the athletes’ disrespect of the troops to be untrue are the exception and not the rule, thus preserving the core of both diametrically opposed “truths” simultaneously.

Granted, my example was hyperbolic but isnt this type of special pleading how you expect thes types of Right-wingers to resolve their cognitive dissonance?

Yeah, that’s about what I do expect but then again I’ve had some experience with watching those idiots twist themselves into five dimensional Moebius pretzels rather than ever update their firmware to match observed empirical evidence. I guess I should have said that would cause any normal, functional human massive cognitive dissonance. My bad! :smiley:

For a case study on cognitive dissonance, try When Prophecy Fails.


It’s the story of a small UFO “cult” that predicted the end of the world back in the 50s. The leader claimed to receive messages from aliens, and the followers believed her. Long story short, when the event failed to occur, the group members generally became more fervent in their belief instead of less. People are terrible at admitting when they are wrong.

I’ve seen the term used, perhaps incorrectly, in law enforcement circles to describe the “something isn’t right here” feeling. For instance, on a car stop all the paperwork checks out and there are no warrants. But you still have a strong feeling that something nefarious is afoot. Everything appears to be fine yet you just “know” its not. There’s the dissonance part. The cognizant part is recognizing consciously what the unconscious already sees. Body language (if you believe in that stuff) can be a stress indicator. Stretching, hand to the back of the neck, failure to make eye contact, carotid pulse visible, etc. can all trip the “spider senses” perhaps without the officer even realizing it. Actual language - asking question back at the officer (“Where am I going?”) or unnatural delays before answering may indicate deception. Officers are encouraged to consciously recognize what is going on and document it in reports should an arrest or search occur.