Say It with Me: Cognitive Dissonance

This is the third installment of a series, introducing terms and ideas that may be unfamiliar to most but are increasingly necessary for the thinking Christian to understand.

“But they’re organic!”

Because we don’t have a Trader Joe’s near our house, whenever my wife can make a trip out to the closest one, she stocks up. I grew up on a steady diet of Crisco and high fructose corn syrup. So, when she introduced me to the reasonably-priced organic food store, I had a lot to learn. Joe-Joe’s, organic equivalent to Oreos, made the learning curve much easier.

They are not all that bad—as long as you haven’t had an Oreo in a while for comparison. And, did I mention they’re organic? Nutritious and delicious, right?

After polishing off the first box within a couple of days, my wife warned me to ease up. “But they’re organic!” My naivete must have been pitiful. “Organic doesn’t mean they are any less fattening,” she explained.

I compared the nutritional values of Joe-Joe’s with Oreos. Across the board, Joe-Joe’s had more sugar, more carbs, and more fat. As it turns out, self-control is just as important with organic products as it is with “the fake stuff.” What I thought would be a more waist-friendly option betrayed me.

I was crushed—crushed by cognitive dissonance.

Meaning

Cognitive dissonance is a term for the internal tension we feel whenever our minds hold two or more ideas that conflict with one another. Sometimes, this occurs when we are confronted with information that contradicts what we previously held to be true. Other times, this occurs when our experiences do not match our expectations.

Though the label is obscure, the feeling is probably familiar. The term was coined as a theory in psychology, but the concept has far-reaching implications. Cognitive dissonance is an experience that many have felt, and no one likes.

Nancy Pearcey describes cognitive dissonance as “the mental stress of harboring concepts that contradict one another.”[1] When experiencing cognitive dissonance, we try to alleviate the stress in a multitude of ways, depending on the cause and severity of the conflict. Regardless of our strategies, however, there are really only a handful of options:

  1. We deny that there is a conflict at all.
  2. We justify the conflict by adding yet another thought.
  3. We oversimplify the conflict as irrelevant or insignificant.
  4. We change one of our conflicting ideas.

Let’s take another look at the cognitive dissonance I experienced with the cookies. My first thought (or cognition, as they are called) was my assumption that organic ingredients would allow me to eat more cookies without gaining weight or getting diabetes. My second thought, however, was my realization that organic cookies, in fact, have more fat, carbs, and sugar, thereby increasing the potential for weight gain and diabetes.

So, what were my options? I could (1.) deny the nutritional facts and eat away, (2.) justify the calories with the natural ingredients, (3.) oversimplify the whole ordeal because, after all, I’m only eating ten a night, or (4.) change my binge eating habits.

Of course, in life, we deal with cognitive dissonance regarding much bigger, more significant issues than our thoughts about cookies. We deal with our assumptions about reality, our beliefs about God, and our ideas about morality. There may be tension between our thinking and behavior, attitudes and actions, or our expectations and experiences.

However, when we are confronted with a conflict, even with an issue of far greater consequence, our options are generally the same. We can either deny, justify, oversimplify, or modify.

How we deal with conflicts regarding the most meaningful issues in life have a great deal to do with how our thinking and behavior change over time. Cognitive dissonance can be a healthy thing or a harmful thing, but the difference largely depends on how we seek to relieve the tension.

Significance

Here’s the thing…

On a worldview level, cognitive dissonance often makes the difference between belief and doubt. Therefore, it is important for us to understand the concept for at least two reasons.

To alleviate the tension between our Christian belief and the challenges of doubt.

Children who grow up in Christian homes are often insulated from ideas or experiences that might challenge their faith. Christian parents and church leaders perhaps have good intentions, wanting to avoid confusion or doubt. However, when young people are finally exposed to those challenges, they frequently assume the worst. “Why haven’t I heard this before? Why was it kept from me? What were they hiding?”

Comedian Ricky Gervais remembers the moment he became an atheist.

Did you hear the cognitive dissonance? You have to wonder what might have been if young Ricky was given a reason to believe in God when he was confronted with the challenge of why he did.

Christians must be aware of cognitive dissonance so that we are not afraid of it. As parents, teachers, and pastors, we must give what Francis Schaffer described as “honest answers to honest questions.” He explained, “Christianity demands that we have enough compassion to learn the questions of our generation.”[2] That is to say, the questions that cause cognitive dissonance.

One of the most valuable experiences for a Christian at any age is to feel the tension brought by challenges to their faith and then realize the resolution to the tension.

For example, Christian children are taught that the Bible is completely trustworthy. As they grow up, however, they are presented with alleged contradictions among various passages. Skeptics of the Bible often make a sport of throwing around such contradictions, casting doubt on the reliability of the Bible.

Tim Keller tells of a man who, though he was raised Christian, became skeptical toward Christian beliefs as an adult for numerous reasons, one of which was the multitude of these alleged contradictions.

However, he eventually realized “that there have been a thousand PhD dissertations written on every single verse, and that for every contention that one verse contradicts another or is an error, there are ten cogent counterpoints.”[3] The man came through the doubt with his faith stronger than ever.

Such is the case when we confront our cognitive dissonance head-on.

To escalate the tension between doubt and the testimony of reality.

Christians are not the only ones who experience cognitive dissonance.

Writing for the New York Times, Science journalist John Horgan described the testing of his faith—in free will, that is.

Free will is something I cherish. I can live with the idea of science killing off God. But free will? That’s going too far. And yet a couple of books I’ve been reading lately have left me brooding over the possibility that free will is as much a myth as divine justice.[4]

What we find here is cognitive dissonance between Horgan’s reverence for free will and his worldview’s apparent incompatibility with it. At one point, he thinks he might “lighten up and embrace my lack of free will.” However, he finally concludes that “no matter what my intellect decides, I’m compelled to believe in free will.”

Perhaps Horgan should relinquish his belief in free will in favor of his worldview’s logical conclusion. Or, perhaps he should seek out a worldview that resolves the tension. That is for him to decide, freely or otherwise.

Another stark example resonates on a more personal level.

In his book Flesh and Machines, MIT professor emeritus Rodney Brooks explores the dilemmas presented by the brave new world of robotics and artificial intelligence. The underlying assumption of the book is that humans are biomolecular machines. One of the major themes of his discussion is that the machines we make are becoming less and less distinguishable from the machines that we are.

Brooks asserts, “Every person I meet is also a machine—a big bag of skin full of biomolecules….” This reduction of humanity is par for the course for a naturalist, materialist worldview. Only, there is a problem: Professor Brooks is a father. How can a father see his children as mere machines? Not very easily as it turns out.  Brooks states, “When I look at my children, I can, when I force myself,…see that they are machines.”

Nevertheless, he continues, “That is not how I treat them….I interact with them on an entirely different level. They have my unconditional love, the furthest one might be able to get from rational analysis.” In other words, “I maintain two sets of inconsistent beliefs.”[5]

The candor is fascinating. Brooks lives in the tension between his love for his children and what his worldview tells him they are. I would never suggest that he abandon his love for his children. However, as a father, I wonder if a worldview that reduces our children to machines is a worldview worth having.


Cognitive dissonance is the tension we feel when there is a conflict between our thoughts and our behaviors, our attitudes and our actions, or our expectations and our experiences.

As Christians, we can face those conflicts head-on, knowing that all truth is God’s truth. The only tensions in a Biblical worldview is that which we bring into it. However, Christianity contains the resources to reconcile those contradictions by reconciling us to God.

Furthermore, people all around us live in the tension between reality and what their worldview says reality is. God helping us, we can ratchet up the tension by showing them the shortcomings of their worldviews. With God sanctified in our hearts, we can be ready to answer anyone who asks for a reason of the hope that is in us, with meekness and fear. (1 Peter 3:15)


[1] Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth, p. 38

[2] Francis A. Schaeffer, 2 Contents, 2 Realities, p. 10.

[3] Tim Keller, Making Sense of God, p. 40.

[4] John Horgan, “More Than Good Intentions: Holding Fast to Faith in Free Will” (https://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/31/science/essay-more-than-good-intentions-holding-fast-to-faith-in-free-will.html)

[5] Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us, p. 174.


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5 thoughts on “Say It with Me: Cognitive Dissonance

  1. You speak my language! I’ve had my own personal life-chapters of Cognitive Dissonance. Thankfully I’ve learned that in some cases it resolves, even after many years, in other cases I’ve been able to dig until I found the answers, and in other cases, its just a part of life that I’m willing to live with.

    I had, for years, a case of cognitive dissonance regarding the resurrection accounts, (their differences, that is). But, after two years of research, studying the Early Church Fathers, and coming to a completely revamped understanding of when the Gospels were written, and who knew what at what time, my mind is actually, (drum roll please) conflict free regarding the resurrection accounts.

    I’m not talking about harmonization. None needed. I’m writing about it as fast as I can….

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