Cognitive dissonance and creative tension

The same or different?
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Presented at The Developing Group 3 Oct 2009 

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Many books and psychological theories have used cognitive dissonance to explain a common aspect of human behaviour – the need to resolve contradictory or conflicting beliefs, values, concepts, perceptions. This dissonance only occurs when we are ‘attached’ to our attitudes or beliefs, i.e. they have emotional significance or consequences for our self-concept or sense of coherence about how the world works.

In 1956 Leon Festinger coined the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ in When Prophecy Fails. He used the idea to explain the apparently bizarre behaviour of members of a UFO doomsday cult when the leader’s end-of-the-world prophesy failed to occur and it became clear that the world was not going to end. Festinger observed cult members enter a strange state of disturbance – not knowing what to believe or do. Eventually, rather than accept that they were misled or wrong, most cult members preferred to believe it was the power of their faith that saved the world. Perversely this motivated them to recruit new members thereby increasing the membership of the cult!

By observing the sequence of incompatible cognitions leading to strange states requiring resolution – the notion of cognitive dissonance was born. In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance(1957) Festinger defines it as:

The psychological opposition of irreconcilable ideas (cognitions) held simultaneously by one individual, created a motivated force that would lead, under proper conditions, to the adjustment of one’s belief to fit one’s behavior – instead of changing one’s behavior to fit one’s belief (the sequence conventionally assumed).

Since then, the definition has widened somewhat. See for a useful overview:

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The “ideas” or “cognitions” in question may include attitudes and beliefs, the awareness of one’s behavior, and facts. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

While lab experiments have verified the presence of arousal in dissonance situations, most studies have investigated how people resolve their cognitive conflicts. A partial list of the mechanisms include:

  • Excusing own faults and failures: “I was drunk, what do you expect?”
  • Selectively editing and censoring evidence; in the extreme, we can completely delete counter-evidence and create false evidence.
  • Interpreting ambiguity for self-serving ends.
  • Giving explanations that cast us in a good light.
  • Minimising: “It was just a fling, she meant nothing to me.”
  • Considering weaknesses as so common that we aren’t responsible: “Everybody does it.”
  • Arrogance: “The rules don’t apply to me.”
  • Blaming: “They made me do it.”
  • Illusion of control – not accepting when we are at the mercy of events.
  • Citing mitigating circumstances: “I was so stressed I had to have a drink.”
  • Not exposing ourself to counter-evidence, e.g. only read newspapers that support our views.
  • Applying our critical judgement differently depending whether we support or oppose a view.

An excellent book on the subject is Mistakes were made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (2008). This book like many others is mostly about the effects of cognitive dissonance. Only a fraction is devoted to how to overcome, combat or handle it. More strangely, very little is said about the subjective experience of cognitive dissonance, or how it works within a person. Tavris and Aronson provide a few hints:

The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions – especially the wrong ones – is an unpleasant feeling that [Leon] Festinger called “cognitive dissonance”. Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. (p. 13)

Dissonance is bothersome under any circumstance, but it is most painful to people when an important element of their self-concept is threatened – typically when they do something that is inconsistent with their view of themselves. If you violate your own values, you will feel much greater dissonance because, at the end of the day, you have to go on living with yourself. Because most people have a reasonably positive self-concept, believing themselves to be competent, moral, and smart, their efforts at reducing dissonance will be designed to preserve their positive self-images. (p. 29)

Dissonance reduction operates like a thermostat, keeping our self-esteem bubbling along on high. That is why we are usually oblivious to the self-justifications, the little lies to ourselves that prevent us from even acknowledging that we made mistakes or foolish decisions. (p. 31)

But dissonance theory applies to people with low self-esteem, too. People who have low self-esteem, or who simply believe that they are incompetent in some domain, are not totally overjoyed when they do something well; why, on the contrary, they often feel like frauds. Successes [are] dismissed as accidents or anomalies. (p. 31)

Self-justification, therefore, is not only about protecting high self-esteem; it is also about protecting low self-esteem, if that is how a person sees himself. (p. 32)

And that’s about it. The rest of the book is about fascinating experiments that explore how people attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance – mostly by self-justifying.

But what is cognitive dissonance? Is it the incompatible cognitions? The unpleasant feelings? The need to reduce the feelings? The action to resolve the conflict? Or all of that?

To answer these questions, Part 1 of The Developing Group day was devoted to modelling our embodied sense of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance and self-deception

We are interested in cognitive dissonance because it appears to be a near-universal human faculty, and also because it plays a major role in self-delusion, self deception and self-denial. Our modelling of self-DDD suggests there is always a conflict between your ‘misleading representation’ and ‘what you know to be true’. This invariably creates cognitive dissonance. And thank goodness it does because otherwise we would have little motivation to do anything about it.

Our research into how people migrate from self-deceiving to acting from what they know to be true shows that a desire to change is an essential element. This raises an interesting conundrum. A desired outcome is by definition at variance with “current reality” – we want something other than what we have. Robert Fritz in The Path of Least Resistance has described how the effect of maintaining a want before it is satisfied produces a “creative tension”:

In the beginning of the creative process there will be a discrepancy between what you want and what you have. This discrepancy forms a tension. Tension seeks resolution. The tension is a wonderful force because, as it moves toward resolution, it generates energy that is useful in creating.

You can probably see the parallel between the processes of:

Cognitive Dissonance – Experiencing incompatible cognitions, the dissonance which is produced and the need to reduce the unpleasant feelings. Then acting to resolve the conflict.


Creative Tension – Experiencing the gap between a desired outcome and the current situation, the resulting creative tension and the desire to reduce that tension. Then acting to bring the creation into being.

In Part 2 of The Developing Group day explored the questions:

Are cognitive dissonance and creative tension the same or different?
Is one a sub-set of the other?
If they are different, how are they different?
Do they work in conjunction or against one another?
And what effect does that have?

To do this we self-modelled how we experienced three phenomena:

The incompatible/incongruent/conflicting cognitions.
The unpleasant/uncomfortable dissonance/tension.
The need/desire/motivation to do something to change the experience.

During the day we excluded the subsequent action, be that a minor self-justification, a major self-deception, acting from what you know to be true, or bringing a creation into the world. We regards these as the effects of cognitive dissonance and creative tension. The key question here is: By what criteria do you evaluate the action taken to reduce the dissonance/tension?

Another effect we put outside the frame was whether the drive to reduce dissonance produces a change in attitude rather than a change in behaviour, or both. 

Living with cognitive dissonance

In Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century (2005), Lauren Slater notes that:

Throughout all of history there have been examples of people who, instead of clapping their hands over their ears, pushed into dissonance, [were] willing to hear what might emerge.  Festiner, actually, is one of those people. His ideas and experiments were highly dissonant with the Skinnerian wisdom of his day. And he pursued it. (p. 123)

Slater goes on to ask Elliot Aranson:

Why [do you] think some people rationalize, while others more deeply revise? And more importantly, how do those people in the midst of a major paradigm shift deal with the long days, weeks, months of grating, and what can their ability to tolerate such sounds and sensations teach us about how we might do the same, in search of a wider life? Has anyone studied these types of people? “We don’t have any data,” Aranson says, “because we don’t have people. People like you’re talking about are few and far between.” (p.124)

We don’t accept Aranson’s belief. We believe most of us have the capacity and most of us have experiences of having taken The Road Less Travelled when it seemed easier to do otherwise. These times in our lives might be few and far between, but, that they happen at all gives hope that they can become the rule, rather than the exception.

V.S. Ramachandran, one of the most well-known neurologists, is investigating the neural substrates responsible for denial and revision. Matthew Lieberman, assistant professor of psychology and social psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, comments on Ramachandran’s research:

Not all brains engage in rationalizations, in such intense single-themed storytelling. East Asians engage in far fewer rationalizations than Americans do. … It’s not that East Asian people don’t experience dissonance, but they have less of a need to reduce it, probably because the structures that seek linear thought patterns have been rewired through spiritual exercise. (Quoted in Opening Skinner’s Box, p. 129.)

While there may be something to Lieberman’s speculations we also suspect that East Asians may use different ways to reduce cognitive dissonance. 

The recursive and self-amplifying nature of cognitive dissonance

There follows a series of loosely connected thoughts on the systemics of cognitive dissonance and creative tension.

Preserving the status quo

Another way to consider cognitive dissonance is to presume its function is to preserve the status quo of the system within an acceptable level of discomfort. Changing appears to require more risk or resources (time, effort, emotional investment) in the short term at least. This is a more systemic view since it is not reliant on ‘self image’. Rather it involves the ‘economy’ of the whole system. In this view the effects of cognitive dissonance are an emergent property of the response of the whole system to two apparently incompatible cognitions.

Also reducing discomfort in one part of the system can result in storing it up for a worse discomfort later, or the discomfort will appear in some other part of the system (like a balloon that’s squeezed in one place that moves the excess pressure to another place). Eventually after many attempts at reducing the discomfort the system recognises that staying the same is not going to work long term and hence the desire to change in a different way is born.

Milgram ‘authority’ experiments

One of the best known pieces of research that provoked cognitive dissonance is the Milgram ‘authority’ experiments. It is commonly known that two-thirds of participants continued giving the stooge learner ‘electric shocks’ up to the maximum of 450 volts, and “almost 90% administered at least one more shock after hearing the learner pound on the wall” (Cordelia Fine, A Mind of its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives, 2007, pp. 67-68).

It is less commonly known that the participants had great difficulty in ‘following orders’. Many showed signs of extreme stress at choosing between two cognitions: wanting to stop and being told to continue. They experienced huge amounts of cognitive dissonance as they tried to reconcile their conflicting values. Afterwards most participants required lengthy debriefing to reduce their levels of discomfort. It is also not well known that the few participants who refused to continue with the experiment were the ones who resisted early in the study, questioning the very validity of the procedure. In most cases, once participants had given an electric shock after they thought it was hurting the learner, they went all the way.

We think the recursive nature of cognitive dissonance is at the root of both the participants difficulty deciding and their decisions to continue long beyond anything they would have predicted of themselves. (People asked to forecast their response to the experiment almost never think they would continue.) Our guess is it works like this:

I am now feeling uncomfortable having to choose between walking out on a scientific experiment which I volunteered for, or violating my value of not hurting another human being. I don’t know what to do but I have to decide. At this moment, the most convenient straw to clutch at is the consistent and insistent instruction of the man in the white lab coat. So I will continue.
But, having increased the electric shock I’m now in a worse position. I have the same decision to make, plus I have to reconcile what I have just done with the kind of person I thought I was. If I cannot rely on my own values who else can I turn to? … The man in the white lab coat.

Feedback loops

Our new behaviour creates a feedback loop which influences us to change our values, beliefs or self-concept. In this way cognitive dissonance creates a viscous — or potentially, a virtuous — spiral. Eventually our behaviour escalates to something we never thought we would be capable of. And then we have to live with what we did; which in the case of a vicious spiral creates more cognitive dissonance, and so on (see diagram below). No wonder self-deception is so popular. 

Short vs. Long term

We reckon that the mother of all cognitive conflicts happens when we have to choose between feeling good in the moment and feeling good in the longer term. Cordelia Fine reveals what usually determines the outcome: it is “more important to us to feel good than to be good” (p. 157). Pass me that second piece of apple pie while I try to figure out how to resolve my cognitive dissonance.

This suggests that we need to learn how to both:

Live with dissonance and tension so we can take a more considered, bigger picture, longer term perspectives.


Reduce dissonance in a way that is not necessarily favorable to us, at least not in the short term, e.g. to openly admit we made a mistake, or to “delay gratification” (M. Scott Peck). In so doing, we can feel good about our honesty and integrity in the longer term.

Either way, we will need to create a meta-state (Michael Hall) e.g. – being comfortable with being uncomfortable; or being trustworthy of our own trust. And that changes our relationship with ourself. 

Using Symbolic Modelling

Using Symbolic Modelling we have seen value in encouraging the conditions for people to experience their personal brand of cognitive dissonance — and holding them there. This has a number of effects: it gets them used to staying with the dissonance; it lets them find out what happens when they do; and it reveals their natural methods for reducing or avoiding dissonance.

We also realise that asking the question ‘And what would you like to have happen?’ puts some people into a bind. Having an answer to this question (i.e. stating a desired outcome) will produce a creative tension which many people are not adept at handling. But also note, not having an answer to this question will create cognitive dissonance if the client has a problem with not-knowing (especially if their self-concept is tied up with knowing). No wonder these people can find the question a challenge. 

Binding patterns

By our definition, a binding pattern is a special type of cognitive-dissonance generator. A bind is composed of at least two incompatible intentions. That incompatibility invariably produces cognitive dissonance. From within the person’s current logic there is no solution. When they realise this, their cognitive dissonance gets multiplied. Eventually they realise they will need to change their way of thinking

But how do you do this when thinking the way you currently do is so natural and compelling? Pump up the dissonnance. Not only do they have conflicting intentions, there is the extra dissonance between their desire to solve their problem and their inability to do so. Stir in the ingredient that many people are uncomfortable with the thought of an unresolvable problem and you have the recipe for an existential crisis.

Another version of how attempting to reduce cognitive dissonance can produce an escalating pattern of self-deception goes like this:

   You start by doing something to reduce dissonance that is not aligned with your espoused values, beliefs or self-concept.
This requires you to self-justify your actions by creating a ‘misleading representation’ of your actions or yourself. You have started to self-deceive.
This creates dissonance between the misleading representation and what you know to be true.
The natural option is to reduce this dissonance by further self-justification which reinforces the self-deception.
This spiral continues until eventually your self-deception becomes untenable.
But, by the time you want to come clean, not only do you have to face the consequences of having deceived yourself and others for so long, you also have to handle the dissonance created by the incompatibility between the person you would like to have been and the person you have become.
And let’s not forget that other form of dissonance, creative tension is inherently involved in the process of changing.

We can conclude that even considering jumping on a train going towards acting from what you know to be true creates dissonance at the beginning, in the middle and throughout the journey. 


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