A&O – COGNITION – Cognitive Dissonance notes






reconciling TRUTH and REALITY


The heart of man is made to reconcile the most glaring contradictions

David Hume


“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep”

Saul Bellow

Mismatches between the external world and one’s internal model of it occur at every level of organization.  Action monitoring and error-detection are basic features of the brain and essential aspects of its effectiveness (see for example, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/343/6173/888) –often corrections are made before we are (consciously) aware there was an error.  But it is in cognition, that errors are most interesting.



When confronted with a mismatch or conflict between  ideas, cognitive dissonance, in Leon Festinger’s term, develops.  Festinger  has demonstrated that people are highly motivated to reduce cognitive conflict  or psychological inconsistencies.  This is regarded by linguists as one of the  principal motives for thinking (e.g., Carroll, 1964).  Among the examples  Festinger (1962) provides are finding what one possesses or attains more  attractive than the unavailable alternative, the “sour grapes” phenomenon, and  changing one’s private opinion when you are unable to retreat from a lie.  Challenges to one’s beliefs are physiologically stressful; cognitive dissonance helps defend the organism from such stresses [more]


Examples of coping responses evoked by cognitive dissonance:


1Attractive alternatives:  Select 1 of 2 equally attractive alternatives:  the fact of attraction and  the fact of rejection creates a dissonance that is resolved by exaggerating  the flaws/minimizing the virtues of the rejected alternative


2Lying: when private beliefs disagree with public statements:

dissonance depends on

a. The amount of mismatch between public & private and

b. how much  justification for creating mismatch (e.g.: “the ends justify the means”)


3.  Resisting temptation: When you do not get something you want, sometimes  there is

a. a “sour grapes” phenomenon;  or

b. the attractiveness of the goal is enhanced instead of degraded:  why?: if  the target is difficult or impossible there is little devaluation of it when  it isn’t attained –there may even be enhancement of its value or difficulty.   Also, if the justification for attaining it is not sufficient, it may be  devalued.



Matching internal conceptions and external phenomena is a powerful motive in human affairs:  the tension and balances between internalization and externalization, particularization and generalization, and the real and ideal reverberate with this need. 

Challenges to deep organizing beliefs about the nature of the world can be amongst the most stressful:  See FREUD on the Three Blows to the Ego


“The past forms the present, the present reforms the past”  (Lee Humphrey)


“Make the best of a bad situation!”


“Humans are the  story-telling animals”  Humans hook up isolated events in their lives with stories.  And stories must have a smooth flow . . . the mind seeks to reconcile inconsistencies.



Quod enim mavult homo verum esse, id potius credit.

(For what a man would like to be true, that he more readily believes.)

(Sir Francis Bacon. Novum Organum (1620) bk. 1, Aphorism 49 -translated by J. Spedding)


in other words,

There is strong disposition to ignore inconsistencies — if they  [what Darwin said]


selective attention to supportive memories or potential challenges to a belief: confirmation bias


Matching, Harmony


     Harmony with your colleague in the chorus, God, nature, even yourself,  echoes the need to transcend, join, unify, incorporate.  And we are pleased by  exemplars of harmony in art, science and faith:  those who have attained some  measure of success in their search for it and tell us in their works, guide us  in the principles we might employ as empathy is engendered by our resonance  with their message. 


The harmony sought is a unifying element in all endeavors if we believe  that the need to progressively perfect the matching of belief with fact,  ambition with potential, or events with our expectations, is a profound motive  to thought.


 T.H. Huxley, perhaps converging with Alexander Pope (“All  discord, harmony not understood(An Essay on Man, Ep. i, 1734)) had a vivid sense of the importance of “harmony” :

Education is the instruction of the intellect in the laws of Nature, under  which name I include not merely things and their forces but men and their  ways, and the fashioning of the affections and of the will into an earnest and  loving desire to move in harmony with these laws.   (Science and Education,  Ch. 4, 1868).



Cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1962) as a strategy for coping with apparent  contradiction prevents paralysis by indecision.  It also allows us to protect  and nurture young and vulnerable ideas until they can stand testing on their  own.  In that sense it is indispensable in creative work, not least science (Boring, 1964).  Recalling the internal and external frontiers of science.  





DISSONANCE and LAUGHTER:   Cognitive dissonance is another way of referring to INCONGRUETY: a prominent theory of the evolution of laughter:  from Jim Holt:

“And how about laughter? Perhaps the best way to gauge future humor is to look at other primates: What do chimps find funny? The Central Washington University researcher Roger Fouts reported that Washoe, a chimpanzee who was taught sign language, once urinated on him while riding on his shoulders. The chimp snorted and made the sign for “funny.” Washoe was also observed playfully wielding a toothbrush as if it were a hairbrush. Moja, another of Fouts’s signing chimps, called a purse a “shoe” and wore it on her foot. A signing gorilla trained by another researcher appeared to derive amusement from offering rocks to people as “food.” Such supposed instances of simian humor (similar to the jokes of preschool children) involve the deliberate misnaming or misuse of things. They thus fit nicely under one of the three classic theories of humor, the incongruity theory, which holds that mirth results when two things normally kept in separate compartments of the mind are abruptly and surprisingly yanked together.

But why should the perception of incongruity cause a spasm of noisy chest-heaving? Laughter has long been viewed as a so-called luxury reflex, one that serves no obvious evolutionary purpose. In recent years, though, practitioners of the art of evolutionary psychology have been more imaginative in coming up with Darwinian rationales. One of the more seductive comes from the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego, who has advanced what might be called the false-alarm theory of laughter. A seemingly threatening situation presents itself; you go into fight-or-flight mode; the threat proves spurious; you alert your (genetically close-knit) social group to the absence of actual danger by emitting a stereotyped vocalization —one that is amplified as it passes contagiously from member to member.

Once the mechanism of laughter was set in place by evolution, the theory goes, it could be hijacked for other purposes: the expression of contempt for out-groups (as the superiority theory of humor claims) or the ventilation of forbidden sexual impulses (the relief theory of humor). But at the core of the original false-alarm mechanism of laughter is incongruity: the incongruity of a grave threat revealing itself to be trivial—­or, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant (an advocate of the incongruity theory) put it, “the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” Incongruity is arguably the primeval kernel of laughter.”   From “Laughter may Outlive Humans…”  in Discover Magazine July 2008, Adapted from Jim Holt’s essay, “The Laughter of Copernicus,” in Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge, edited by Damien Broderick (Atlas and Company). complete essay


from A&O notes on Cognitive Dissonance  and see A&O notes on “getting it”

Ultimately, Cognitive Dissonance is a form of error detection: a crucial neurobehavioral process.