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Theoretical Explanations to the Rise of Cognitive Dissonance


Recognizing Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is defined by the mental discomfort or psychological stress that is felt from an inconsistency in two or more beliefs, attitudes, or values held by an individual. One of the most common demonstrations of cognitive dissonance by those who experience it happens when an individual holds a belief that is challenged with evidence to support the contrary, yet the belief does not change. There are existing theories to explain the resulting behavior that can be expected when cognitive dissonance arises and demands reconciliation. But what causes cognitive dissonance to arise in the first place? What is the source of obstinance to belief change that so often occurs with the onset of cognitive dissonance? If there is solid empiracle data that irrefutably proves the opposite of a belief, the logical course of action would be to change the belief. So why does it seem so difficult for humans to do just that? There are two explanations that could account for such illogical behavior, neither of which are necessarilly mutually exclusive. Although the first explanation is ostensibly the simpler of the two, it seems to make even more sense when looked at through the lens of the second explanation.

First Explanation

Each belief that an individual holds contributes to a system of values by which one lives their life. An individual will operate their life according to this set of values and beliefs. While it may make perfect sense on a parochial scope, it can tend to become more abstract when the belief system is viewed as a whole. This abstraction can be confusing and make it very ambiguous to find a starting point from which to reconcile one's cognitive dissonance. It seems that confusion offers a rather simple explanation as to why humans demonstrate and function with the existence of cognitive dissonance and seek to mitigate the discomfort by avoiding confrontation rather than attempting to change the belief.

Second Explanation

The second explanation is slightly more complex yet still reflects the emotional relationship with logic so commonly found in the human psyche. As humans, the world makes sense to us because of our belief system. We perceive things to be the way they are for one reason or another because our belief system explains it in a way that makes sense to us. Our reality and the world around us is shaped and molded by what we believe in order for the world to make sense. Thus, our belief system becomes our reality. If the world didn't make sense, it would be very difficult for us function on a day to day basis. Subsequently, we develop an emotional attachment to this belief system by sheer virtue of self preservation. If the world doesn't make sense and it results in a failure to function, it poses the very real threat that we then cease to exist. This can be a very scary prospect to face. Ergo, cognitive dissonance can arise from fear. Humans build their reality on a foundation of beliefs. If evidence is presented that contradicts those beliefs, it presents the very frightening potential that our reality could come crashing down around us leaving us to rebuild it from the ground up. The irony lies in the work that's necessary to maintain a reality predicated on faulty beliefs. Although it takes more work to prop a reality that's based on lies and half truths than it is to rebuild one's own reality on the foundation of evidence based beliefs, it is less frightening to do so.

The Other Side of the Coin

It is important to consider the complexity of the human psyche when confronting cognitive dissonance. The mind is not a dry-erase board. Everyone's reality is built on the internalization of beliefs formulated through repetitive exposure to information over a duration of time. No belief system is solidified over night. Ergo, expecting it to also change over night is both unrealistic and unfair. Information to the head is like water on a rock, the more it hits the rock, the farther in it sinks. Never underestimate the power of planting a seed nor the importance of tending it.


Nevertheless, as we have seen, cognitive dissonance persists through fear. Reduced down to it's basest factor, fear is the primary motivator for the rise and continuity of cognitive dissonance. The fear itself can stem from any number of sources depending on the subject where cognitive dissonance is concerned. Yet it is the fear that must be faced in order to reconcile the cognitive dissonance. Whatever it is that is disallowing the acceptance of new information needs to be relinquished. And, if repudiating that old information or belief is the impetus for rebuilding and entire new reality, then we must remember that personal growth is so uncomfortable because it is incompatible with the ego.