Why do we act irrational to information that differ from our opinion?

In 1957, Leon Festinger published his theory of cognitive dissonance, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior. According to him, we hold a lot of views and opinions about everything, and when we see something that rejects our views and opinions, we feel unpleasant, and are motivated to reduce or eliminate it in order to feel pleasant again.

According to Festinger’s theory, when there is a dissonance, something must change to eliminate it, and can happen in 3 ways:

1. The individual changes one or more of their attitudes, causing the cognitive dissonance to disappear.

For example, stopping smoking, reading and believing in climate change. This method often presents problems for individuals, as the person needs to change a learned habit.

2. Acquire new information that underweight the dissonance belief.

For example, if someone doesn’t believe in climate change, thinking climate change will destroy the world causes dissonance, but if he/she gets new research that states “Climate change under challenge, no definitive proof”, the dissonance can be reduced or eliminated. This is sometimes called Confirmation Bias. Confirmation bias occurs when one only looks for or accepts evidence that confirms what one already believes. It’s a form of emotional reasoning in which the emotional significance of a belief outweighs the emotional significance of being rational.

3. Reducing the importance of the dissonance.

For example, a person can keep telling themselves that climate change doesn’t matter because they will be gone from this world long before it impacts their way of life. Here, the person can decrease the importance of the dissonance.

How does this affect me?

Understanding cognitive dissonance is even more relevant in today’s world where everyone can get their word out easily through social media and blogs. In times of political turbulence, elections, and media distrust, people can easily look for news and writings that complements their views and opinions. This, in turn, causes us to be in a bubble, filled with everything that supports our views and opinions. Any information, research, and views that doesn’t support the bubble must be wrong.

According to a research in May 2016 by Pew Research Center, 62% of the adults in the United States get their news from social media such as Facebook. But this is dangerous as this lets us live in our own filter bubble. We are more likely to be friends with people that shares the same belief as we do, and Facebook’s algorithm also learns about our likes and dislikes, and brings us news according to our likes, with further strengthen the filter bubble.

The Guardian made an interesting article out of this phenomenon. They asked voters on the left and right side to switch feeds.

If there was one thing that our participants agreed on, it was that the Facebook feed “the other side” reads is largely wrong.

Again, this is a form of cognitive dissonance, where we reject the things that contradicts our belief, as it feels unpleasant and in turn feels like these things reject who we are as a person.

For several of our participants, reading the alternative Facebook feed was not just surprising, but hurtful.

“It’s hard for me to read some of it,” said Pines, who is black. “It’s just a racist kind of thing, and I don’t think it’s cleverly disguised.” Pines was particularly pained by the way in which Obama was portrayed by the right-wing sources, which he described as “code” and “dog whistles”.

As we can see from their experience, being in our own bubble is so pleasant and nice, but being in another person’s bubble, especially if they have contradictory view than ours, is painful.

There are 2 ways people react in that experiment, which are:

Confirming their commitment to stay in their own bubble

“I learned that [people on the right] are way more vicious and lack a certain maturity that I would expect of adults,” said Moungo, after the election. “This just absolutely confirmed it … They are irredeemable monsters.”

Or becoming more understanding

Lee said she was impressed by the “cleverness” of right-wing messaging, which uses “words like working class and jobs and economic stability. That promise is so great that it overshadows everything else, and I could see that, if that’s the only thing that I saw, I could understand. I could be swayed.”

This is not exclusive to the States. This is happening all around the world, including Jakarta. With the coming governor election in 15 February, tensions are high and it becomes more and more important to be understanding and more open minded of other views than our own instead of vilifying others.

Usage in Manipulation

There are a number of papers researching the ways that cognitive dissonance can be used to manipulate people (a number of papers links provided at the end of this article), but here I’d like to look for some ways that is commonly used to manipulate people.

1. Sales pitches

Getting a client to say some preference, and repeating it as a reasoning to buy something encourages the client to agree because otherwise, the client will reject their own opinion. For example:

Client : “I want a good computer, and I need it rather quickly”

Sales : “I have 2 good computers for you, A and B. B is the newer model and will be here in a couple of weeks. But you need something quick right?”

2. Pushing people to make a commitment

This one is easier to explain with an example. Imagine you’re having a discussion on the dinner table with 5 of your friends from college. The discussion turns into social service, and how many kids are in an orphanage near your college. Then someone innocently asked “Don’t you think people should do more to help these orphans? I mean their situation is so bad”. The obvious knee-jerk response will be “Yes, definitely!”. But then your friend remarked, “Glad to hear your support guys! I’m thinking of organizing a charity drive for that orphanage, when can you all spare a few hours to come and visit?”. At this point, it will be awkward to say you don’t want to come as it contradicts your earlier statement that you should do more to help the orphans.

3. Encouraging honesty

Signing forms at the start of a paper can make people more honest. This process enforces people to be reminded of who they are, and encourages people to live up to their ideal self.

4. Encourage people to make a large commitment by making a smaller one first

If you already agree to do something small for your friend, for example, watching his dog for an hour, you will be more compelled to agree when the next time he asks you to watch his dog for a week. Even though one week and one hour is far different, you’ve already established yourself that you’re okay with watching dogs, and so rejecting the one week request feels unpleasant.

5. Turn haters into friends by asking them a favor

When you ask a hater (for example a coworker you don’t work well with) for a small request that is generally impossible to reject, it encourages that person to see you in a better view. Because if you’re a bad person, and he/she helps you, then that creates a cognitive dissonance. That person’s mind needs to make sense of why they helped you, and this will cause them to think that you must not be such a bad person after all. Another name for this is the Benjamin Franklin Effect.

Being aware of cognitive dissonance is the first step in countering it, and can help you make more sense of what is happening around you. It’s not helping that media companies are pandering to specific interests. You can see which media companies are predominantly liberal, and which are conservative. The way the same news is presented from these 2 views are wildly different and it builds public opinion to go further and further into each side. This is dangerous because it makes the public so divided that it is harder for people to find a common ground.

Each and every one of us needs to brace the fact that we act irrational in front of information that contradicts our belief, take a deep breath, realize that it does not mean that that information rejects us as a person, and separate the facts from the opinions. Only then we can look for a common ground and stand united.

Further Reading on Cognitive Dissonance

Oxoby, Robert J. and Smith, Alexander, Using Cognitive Dissonance to Manipulate Social Preferences. IZA Discussion Paper №8310. Available at SSRN

Chang, Tom and Solomon, David H. and Westerfield, Mark M., Looking for Someone to Blame: Delegation, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Disposition Effect (October 1, 2014). Available at SSRN: here or here

Chen, M. Keith, Rationalization and Cognitive Dissonance: Do Choices Affect or Reflect Preferences? (July, 15 2008). Cowles Foundation Discussion Paper №1669. Available at SSRN

Bendersky, Corinne and Curhan, Jared R., Cognitive Dissonance in Negotiation: Free Choice or Counter-Attitudinal Justification?. IACM 2006 Meetings Paper. Available at SSRN


Simply Psychology — Cognitive Dissonance

Wired-Signature Honesty

Benjamin Franklin Effect



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