Cognitive Dissonance: What Does It Do To Our Brain? Cognitive dissonance is a person’s discomfort when their behavior is inconsistent with their values or beliefs. It can also arise when a person simultaneously maintains two contradicting views.
Cognitive dissonance is not an ailment or disease. It is a psychological phenomenon that everyone might experience. In the 1950s, American psychologist Leon Festinger created the notion.
Learn more about cognitive dissonance, including instances, signs a person may be experiencing, causes, and how to resolve it by reading the following information.
Discovery of cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance was first proposed in the mid-1950s by American social psychologist Leon Festinger. A news report initially piqued Festinger’s interest.
The article related the unbelievable tale of one Mrs. Keech (actually known as Dorothy Martin). It was said that unexplained aliens had reached Mrs. Keech with the grim news that a massive flood would destroy the earth on a certain date (December 21, 1954).
Yet there was yet hope. Friendly aliens had told Mrs. Keech that a flying saucer would rescue true believers on the day the world was supposed to end. Mrs. Keech rapidly attracted a dedicated following. They joined forces, selling their homes and giving up their possessions in anticipation of the world’s end.
Festinger was particularly curious about what would happen to these people once the end of the world had come and gone, and they were forced to confront the absurdity of their beliefs. Festinger and his team members investigated this by posing as members of Mrs. Keech’s group of prophecy believers.
Even though the projected end of the world came and went, life went on as usual. After such blatant disillusionment, the faithful reacted in peculiar ways. Mrs. Keech’s prophecy has caused the group to remain in the shadows, and they don’t seem interested in speaking with the media or the public. After their prediction was disproved, they turned to each other for validation.
Festinger had anticipated this result before he infiltrated the organization. He provided evidence for his claim by speculating that once the group realized their beliefs were untrue, they fervently tried to convince others of their beliefs by spreading their ideas through the media to lessen the discomfort they felt in facing a reality that starkly contrasted their ideals.
Perhaps most intriguing is that even those who weren’t totally committed to the prophecy but were still active members of the group had a little issue accepting its falsity.
The group’s core members were the most steadfast in their convictions since they were the ones who had spent the most time thinking about and working toward their goals. This demonstrated how difficult it is to accept the truth when it contradicts one’s views when those ideas have a high personal investment.
Cognitive dissonance research conducted by Festinger
Festinger provided experimental support for the aforementioned anecdotal evidence via the classic experiment developed by him and his colleague Carlsmith.
In this study, participants were given a series of boring and repetitive tasks, such as filling, emptying, and refilling a tray with spools and rotating pegs in a clockwise orientation. They had to keep at it for a very long period, which only added to the monotony of the task.
Participants were split into three groups: a control group that merely carried out the activities, a group that received $20 for their efforts, and a group that received $1. When asked whether they enjoyed the experiment after completing the tasks, members of the control group and the group that earned 20 dollars all reported that the exercise was extremely dull.
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This question elicited vastly different responses from the participants in the group that received the $1. They reported feeling rewarded by the assignments.
Participants who received $20 for their time should not explain their participation, as they were adequately compensated. Conversely, those who were only paid a dollar felt they were not fairly compensated for the lengthy time they had to devote to the laborious work.
What happens in our brains during such dissonance?
The posterior medial frontal cortex lies in the middle portion of the prefrontal cortex (denoted by PFC in the above figure). (Photo Credit : GeorgeVKach/Wikimedia commons)
The posterior medial frontal cortex is the area of the brain most linked to reducing cognitive dissonance and is positioned toward the back of the frontal lobes (pMFC). When a person is trying to rationalize their own choices, especially when those choices conflict with their beliefs, increased activity in this region can be detected using magnetic resonance imaging.
A magnetic coil near a person’s head is used in transcranial magnetic stimulation to stimulate or inhibit neural activity. When this method reduces pMFC activity, people are far less likely to adjust their thoughts to be consistent with their behaviors and much less motivated to do so.
Brain areas associated with severe negative emotions like anger and despair, as well as those tied to cognitive control, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, are also engaged in the fight to ease any cognitive dissonance we may feel (DLPFC). The requirement for people to rationalize and justify their opinions in cognitively discordant settings was reduced when the DLPFC’s activity was reduced using transcranial magnetic stimulation.
Individual experiences cognitive dissonance when there is a contradiction between their thoughts and actions. The strange thing about cognitive dissonance is that when it happens, the brain works very hard to fix the problem, usually by altering the person’s perspective so that their actions and beliefs are consistent again.