[ The three methods of solving cognitive dissonance || The power of reward to rationalise behaviours || Cognitive dissonance good and bad || Why does music exist || Music to my dissonant ears || Cognitive dissonance is everywhere ]
Cognitive dissonance is one of the most studied philosophical and psychological traits of being human in the last century.
When we hold two conflicting idea’s in our mind they cause discomfort either physically, mentally or both. The theory of cognitive dissonance centres on how people try to reach consistency internally for these conflicting idea’s.
The idea being that people have a strong desire to ensure that beliefs and behaviours remain consistent. When these beliefs or behaviours become inconsistent.., this leads to disharmony and discomfort. Both of which people will do their best to avoid.
A common example of cognitive dissonance is smoking. Most people, even smokers, would agree that smoking is bad for your health.
So if you are a smoker and you believe that.., then how do you get past feeling bad and guilty every time you light up a cigarette?
The three methods of solving cognitive dissonance
To solve the problem of cognitive dissonance, one of the conflicting idea’s or beliefs has to be downgraded or discarded. Usually one of the idea’s is dominant leading to a specific behaviour (Even if that behaviour is a freeze response of inactivity). There are three main ways of solving this dilemma of a behaviour not matching a belief.
1) You can change the belief
2) You can change the behaviour
3) You can rationalise the behaviour by adding another belief
So in the example of the smoker above, you could do one of the following or variations on them.
You could find new evidence that shows that actually smoking is good for you, or that at least it is not bad or harmful.
You could stop smoking!
Or.., you could rationalise that because you also eat healthy, exercise and drink lots of water that any negative effect will be undone by your otherwise healthy lifestyle.
Most people choose this third option for any type of cognitive dissonance as it is easier than changing a belief or a behaviour.
The power of reward to rationalise behaviours
In 1954, Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith conducted an experiment involving subjecting people to a tedious boring task. Following the boring task, participants were offered a reward to give false information to the next participant.
In the study, participants spent a significant amount of time engaged in a repetitive boring set of actions. They were then interviewed afterwards and asked what they thought of the experiment. All reported that it was boring and hard to stay focused.
The interviewers then stated that the person who was supposed to talk to the next study participants in the waiting room had left, and they needed another person to do it for them. The instruction for the role was that they had to describe the experiment to the next people as interesting and exciting. In return for describing it this way, they would be given money.
One group of these volunteers was offered $1 for the task and one group was offered $20 (a significant amount in 1954).
The volunteers that agreed to take on this role were then interviewed again after they had done it and received the reward.
The results were interesting and unexpected.
High rewards do not match high chances of belief change
Logically you would think that the higher reward would result in it being more likely that those volunteers changed their view on the experiment. And that the lower reward would not have as much chance of this change of view.
But in fact the opposite was true.
Those who were given $20 completed their role perfectly.., but in the final interview when asked about what they did they said “I found a way to make the experiment sound interesting to the people waiting, but really it was pretty boring and I wouldn’t do it again”.
Those who were given only $1 completed their role perfectly also.., but in the final interview stated “Thinking back to the experiment I was wrong to say it wasn’t interesting. It actually was interesting”.
What does this mean?
The people who got the lower reward actually changed their belief!
Because the reward itself was not high enough to be an adequate justification to overcome the cognitive dissonance between their behaviour of telling others the experiment was interesting, and their belief that it was boring.
For the volunteers who got the higher reward however.., $20 was enough to be it’s own justification for overcoming the discomfort of lying, without needing to change the belief itself.
Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias
Had the experiment continued with another focus of investigation, I believe they would have found another interesting psychological effect called Confirmation bias. This is where a belief in one thing will cause people to only see that thing even when multiple possibilities are present. So had those low reward volunteers been given the same experiment again.., chances are they would have found it interesting and reported the same in a post experiment interview. So combining these two principals explains a lot in terms of human behaviour. The comfort of only seeing what you want to see, and avoiding the discomfort of conflicting idea’s.., makes change hard and for some people even unlikely.
Cognitive dissonance good and bad
There cannot truly be order without a good dose of chaos. For new knowledge to be useful, it must be sufficiently different from existing knowledge. For the evolution of science and idea’s to continue, there MUST be contradictory information that emerges that causes this cognitive dissonance. Only then will current understandings be challenged and behaviours and/or beliefs about what is possible tested and improved upon.
Change for most people, cultures and the world as a whole is hard and uncomfortable however. The very reason why most seek to justify rather than change.
Healthy cognitive dissonance leads to re-assessing beliefs and behaviours as long as this change is autonomous and not forced. Many a person has gotten to a point (myself included) where evidence and belief conflict.., leading to a reassessment of the belief and new actions. Unfortunately for some, the belief is so strong that the only way out of the cognitive dissonance is to blame others or outside circumstances rather than take a good long hard look at themselves.
Cognitive dissonance, misuse and misunderstanding
You only need look at (or look back on) the current 2020/2021 handling of the worldwide pandemic to see gaping holes in how this psychological principal has been misunderstood and potentially misused. Even to the point of offering small rewards for ‘compliance’. A lack of understanding of how people change their beliefs and behaviours willingly has lead to division, anger and mistrust. In some cases even toward some organisations, governments and medical companies. And once established, the change of belief, behaviour or justification made to ease the discomfort of cognitive dissonance is difficult to reverse.
Cognitive dissonance and evolution
Cognitive dissonance proves to be a problem for evolution theories. As I have already mentioned.., since new knowledge emerges by modifying previous knowledge, there must always be conflict between the two. And if our natural instinct is to downgrade or discard one or the other of these conflicting idea’s.., then by the law of easiest action, all new knowledge would be discarded leading to no evolution at all. This process of discarding new knowledge during a moment of cognitive dissonance happens quickly, usually without adequate time to assess the value of the new knowledge.
Language development made the accumulation of new knowledge more widespread. But how and why did that knowledge become accepted as new beliefs and actions that replaced the existing ones.
Why does music exist
Music, although generally understood as being an important part of our lives has no obvious reason for existing. Some reactions to sound like pitch and volume, are a fundamental part of evolution for safety reasons. But for centuries.., evolutionists, scientists and philosophers have debated why music even came to be, what it is, and why it effects us.
In the 19th century Charles Darwin came to the conclusion that “music is the greatest mystery”.
Music plays a universal significant role in every culture yet does not serve any obvious agreed adaptive function.
The closest guess for an origin of our enjoyment of music, is that genetics and hereditary play a role.
What is known from brain scans, is that the parts of the brain associated with language also light up when music is heard.
Music as a cure for mental conflict
There is one theory gaining popularity however. And that theory is closely related to cognitive dissonance. And as such it does in fact suggest that music could have played an adaptive role in evolution. And it may have done this by helping us overcome the discomfort of new conflicting knowledge. This led to adopting new methods of living and communicating. Thus the problem of cognitive dissonance being a challenge to the idea of evolution might be solved.
The proposal is that with the emergence of language to spread knowledge.., there must have been an emergence of something else to allow for the holding in the mind of two conflicting idea’s long enough to assess the value of each.
And this something else, may well be music…
Music to my dissonant ears
Most animals make sounds in response to events from instinct and unlike humans are not able to replace this emotionally triggered sound with logical verbalisation.
When language emerged for humanity, every new word was new information that contradicted an existing idea or belief. Something in our minds must have evolved to help our ancestors overcome the uncomfortable feelings, and allow them to keep contradictory knowledge rather than immediately discarding it.
Language splits the world into detailed, distinct pieces.
Music seems to have the ability to re-connect those parts of the brain, expanding the psyche and allowing for processing of new idea’s. We need both abilities. Thus it is proposed that the two functions of language and music evolved at the same time.
And there are experiments that show this effect.
The Mozart effect
In the experiment linked below, 4 year old children were asked to rank the value of a group of toys. They were then told that one particular toy (which had been ranked as 2nd most valuable) was not allowed to be played with. This is new knowledge that conflicts with the existing knowledge of desire to play with it.
This created cognitive dissonance in the children that was quickly solved by that toy no longer being desired. The value of the toy was downgraded or discarded. The evidence of this was that when the adults left the room.., the toy was still left alone. When then asked about that toy, the children no longer ranked it as valuable.
However, if music was playing during the instructions to not play with the toy.., when the adults left the room the toy was now desired again and still ranked as valuable. In this instance music by Mozart was used as this has been extensively studied for other applications and is known as the ‘Mozart effect’. The music stopped the downgrading or discarding of the toy as a new piece of knowledge.
Many similar studies have also been done that show the introduction of music to facilitate the handling of stressful situations and a greater willingness to spend more time on stressful tasks. For example, 15 year old students who had music playing during a multi choice examination, spent more time on the difficult questions and got more correct answers.
In fact there is some evidence to suggest that people who are a-musical (not musical and/or unable to enjoy music) have lower grades and a lower ability to learn overall.
Cognitive dissonance is everywhere
Now that you have an idea of how dissonance works, the ways it plays out will become more obvious to you.
How many times have you seen someone be rejected by the opposite sex only for them to then find everything wrong with that person. Maybe music plays a part here in the persistence of some people despite being rejected in clubs and bars. And no surprise perhaps that so many songs are written about love with it’s conflicting emotions. Or consider the common phrase after not getting something you wanted… “I think I dodged a bullet there”.
The thought process being, that ‘If I can’t have it.., then I don’t need or want it’.
The adoption of many scientific discoveries are often delayed by decades due to them being in conflict with current beliefs. Some scientists will even disprove their OWN theories but dismiss the new results due to being so invested in their previous theory, and the extreme discomfort produced by anything that goes against it.
It would seem from research and experience that music actually plays a role in cognitive function and the evolution of thoughts and beliefs more so than we give it credit for.
Maybe next time you have an emotionally challenging decision to consider, you should put on some music and face the challenge head on. After all, don’t we often tend to process sorrow and sadness with the help of music. And the music in question is often written about the same experience. Why leave it at that? Maybe every hard decision can be better evaluated with music. 🙂