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

A few months back, on a mentoring session with the Human Resources Director in Microsoft Indonesia, she shared a great tip in how we can manage our public branding and our personal social life by compartmentalizing our social media. For me, this relates to social media policies that companies usually have ( Here’s 5 terrific examples of companies doing this ). For simplicity purposes, social media policy means guideline that directs us in what we can or cannot post in our social media.

In the internet, there floats an image of a Japanese proverb, that says “The Japanese say you have three faces. The first face, you show to the world. The second face, you show to your close friends, and your family. The third face, you never show anyone. It is the truest reflection of who you are.”. Although after some research I found that this is not actually a Japanese proverb and is derived from somewhere else, the phrase’s meaning is still true.

Imagine, in the world, you have many titles. For me, I’m a son, an advisor, a startup cofounder, a traveller, a watch enthusiast, and I can act differently depending on which role I am currently performing. Imagine a man who’s a manager, a father, and a husband. He can be stern and rather ruthless in the office, gentle to his kids, and romantic with his wife.

The same situation applies to our social media. Currently the popular social media in Indonesia from my point of view is Instagram, Facebook, Path and LinkedIn. Twitter and Tumblr is not really prevalent in my circle. But we need to be able to answer 2 questions:
1. Who is able to see what I share in this social media?
2. Am I sharing appropriate things for the people that sees what I share?

Here’s a good example from 2009, a woman got sacked because she insulted her boss on Facebook.

This is even more important in Indonesia where in the law, there is law against insulting people (below).

“(1) Barang siapa sengaja menyerang kehormatan atau nama baik seseorang dengan menuduhkan sesuatu hal, yang maksudnya terang supaya hal itu diketahui umum, diancam karena pencemaran dengan pidana penjara paling lama sembilan bulan atau pidana denda paling banyak empat ribu lima ratus rupiah.” — Pasal 310, KUHP, Bab XVI

Free translation : “Anyone who intentionally attack someone’s honor or reputation by alleging something, with intention so it is generally known, can be sued on the grounds of defamation with a maximum imprisonment of nine months or a maximum fine of four thousand five hundred rupiah”

Taking the legality issue aside, even if the woman is not fired, it’s easy to imagine that her boss will have a negative view of her which will impact her job and her performance evaluation.

Now how do you compartmentalize and define your social media policy?

1. Decide which social media you will be using

First, we need to decide on which social media we will want to be active in. This includes thinking and checking with your friends and colleagues use so you won’t fall victim to be the only one that uses a particular social media.
For me : LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.

2. Decide which social media will be intended for who

Then we need to review our current social media settings, friends, likes and shares (if you already have the social media). From there, you can decide on who those content is appropriate for. After that, think of who do you want to see your particular social medias.
For me:
Facebook is for people who I’ve already met and I’m interested be friend with
LinkedIn is for my professional relationships
Instagram is for public.

3. Adjust the visibility of the social media accordingly

After we know who the social media is intended for, we can now adjust our settings to ensure what we posts there will be appropriate for the audience. For existing social media, we can adjust the visibility of our content en masse, here’s the how-to for facebook posts. But for new social media, this is much easier as you start with a clean slate.
For me:
Limiting visibility of old posts in facebook from public
Reviewing my linkedin privacy settings
Reviewing my instagram privacy settings

4. Decide what kind of content that you want to share

Here is the point where you define your personal social media policy in a more actionable pointers. In this step, you need to decide what you would like the audience in that particular social media to see. This relates to the image you want to portray in that environment, and how free you can be in the future on posts.
For me:
Facebook is for personal sharing and news, interests
LinkedIn is for news, articles, and content I write professionally
Instagram is for pictures I don’t mind anyone to see

On all social medias, I refrain from posting things of political nature.

5. Adjust your past contents to reflect

The previous step can help a lot in going forward, but for posts and shares in the past, we might need to adjust or even delete our old posts so it adheres to our personal social media policy. I’m sure I’m not the only one that is embarrassed by posts from 7 years ago.

All in all, social media is a great technology that is so pervasive in our daily and work life that we need to be careful in using. One of the best way to ensure we stay consistent is to compartmentalize our own social media and to have our own social media policy.

2 months ago, when I was in a gas station, a motorcycle crashed into an angkot (minibus) and the lady motorcycle driver got thrown off around 3 meters to the side from the impact and the minibus’ front bumper fell. The surprise caused me to let my phone slip my hand, fell to the ground, and lo, the gorilla glass cracked half the screen. Thankfully, the phone still worked, the touch was still responsive, it’s just a bit ugly to look at. (From what I saw when I left the scene, the lady driver was okay, a bit shaken, probably some scratches, but she already gained conciousness and recovering).

3 days ago, I finally found the time to turn in my phone for screen replacement. I put the phone in the shop in the morning, and I got it back late at night. The whole day I went without a phone, I still had a couple of meetings, 1 of which I didn’t know where it was, so I had to check the maps first before I leave the phone, memorize it, and tell my colleagues that I won’t have my phone for the day, but don’t worry, I will be on my meetings on time, please share with me the exact meeting spot.

During the past 2 months, the thing that has been holding me back from actually turning my phone in for repair was generally one of these few questions
“What if there’s an emergency?”
“What if someone important is looking for me?”
“What if someone got offended because I don’t reply quickly?”
“What if there’s a problem in my team and I don’t know until it’s too late?”

And more and more “What if”s

Not to mention I was also resistant because I was afraid of being bored out of my mind for the whole day, which can be summed as what people are saying as “FOMO” (Fear Of Missing Out).

During the ride to the first meeting, I was anxious, and sometimes shocked that I realize I have an empty pocket where my phone usually is. Then I had no GPS, so I have to rely on good old memory and instinct to figure out a good route to go to the meeting spot, and I needed to ask a few people inside the building before I got pointed into the right direction of the meeting.

But during the meeting and through the rest of the day, I realized something extraordinary.

1. I was laser focused

Without my phone, I cannot be distracted by it and I was forced to be in the moment. It also helped my driving as there’s no buzzing, and no beeps from a phone to distract me from what’s in front of me.

2. I was calm and engaged

It’s surprising how tranquil it is without the constant buzzing and lit up screen. There’s no pressure on constantly taking my phone out of my pocket and checking it for notifications. And not to mention, my pocket feels very light!

3. At the end of the day, it was okay to reply to all the messages, notifications, and emails at night / the next day(if it’s for work)
No one disses me, mad at me, or got offended because I didn’t reply quickly. I was also able to gather my thoughts and reply better than if I had replied instantly in the first place.

You should try turning off your phone for a day if:

  • You need to focus on something
  • You want to figure out something about yourself
  • You need to organize your thoughts

In all 3 cases, turning off your phone gives you time to be alone with your thoughts and you can slowly sort it out at your own pace. The important point that needs to be made is that if you go without a phone for a day, you definitely need to tell people you usually interact with everyday (like your work team), and anyone you plan to meet or follow up something with that day.

To summarize, although it will make you anxious at first to go a day without your phone, you will feel happier, and I bet you will find out something new about yourself at the end of it. Personally I will definitely do it again, but next time, I hope it will be on purpose, not because I had to turn my phone in for repair again.