Cognitive dissonance is a state of discomfort or stress resulting from an individual holding some combination of conflicting cognition and behaviors. Cognition refers to attitudes, values, beliefs, and so on. (Definition source 1 and source 2.)
Leon Festinger originated the theory of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s. Basically, the theory states can be summed up by what is called the principle of cognitive consistency. This principle holds that people have an incentive to reduce their own cognitive dissonance.
Here’s my point: It’s good to reduce people’s cognitive dissonance! People often through around the term cognitive dissonance in amateur fashion, perhaps saying something like, “That’s your cognitive dissonance talking.” This is often meant in a near accusitory fashion, but a serious reflection on the meaning of cognitive dissonance reveals that this is in fact a good thing because the alternative would be to have no problem maintaining contradicting views or behaviors. That state of affairs is called hypocrisy or irrationality and it is universally accepted as a bad thing.When we are faced with new information which seems to contradict our prior information, we experience cognitive dissonance. It is important to remember that the new information doesn’t need to contradict an individual’s prior information or belief state, it merely needs to seem to contradict that prior state prima facie.In short there are three possible outcomes from a bout of cognitive dissonance:
- On further reflection, there is no contradiction.On further reflection, there is a contradiction.
- And the older belief is preferred.And the newer belief is preferred.
Another use of the term cognitive dissonance, which is a technically improper use, is to demean someone who has chosen outcome 2.1. This individual is the precautionary or conservative individual and he or she need not be insulted, because that individual might be right! There is an under-appreciation of conservatism for those who would attack such an individual. While new information is often a one-off statement of an unknown degree of truth, older beliefs are often time-tested with an entire system of verification backing them. In short, it is often quite rational to prefer an old belief to a new piece of information which contradicts that old belief.
Moreover, the behavior of seeking to self-justify in the face of contradictory information is hardly irrational or bad. Defensive behavior, within limits, is quite a good thing. This is because it might be the case that the old information or belief is true! Should we rapidly abandon such a belief without attempting to defend it? Just as we should test the old belief, we should also test the new belief. If, however, the defense is unsuccessful and we continue to hold the old belief when it has been sufficiently revealed as false then we have crossed into the realm of irrationality.
There is a rational level of sufficiency for acceptance of a belief, or a rational standard of proof, but it is largely ignored in practice. Usually the level of sufficiency for a belief to be considered acceptable by an individual is set arbitrarily, but the rational level of indifference would be 50% or the level of trustworthiness of the best alternative explanation, whichever is greater. If A is more than 50% likely to be true, then it should be rationally considered true, except where there is an alternative B which is even more likely than A to be true. This is actually a well known approach to logical validation of belief and it is even considered a scientific approach. It is called Inference to the Best Explanation and it is the same form of abductive reasoning used to originate and defend Darwinism.
The best way to avoid cognitive dissonance is to refrain from engaging in difficult discussions, to refrain from questioning things, and to refrain from considering opposing views. All of these things are bad! We should applaud those who are willing to engage in and overcome cognitive dissonance. When we overcome cognitive dissonance we often do so by reconciling two difficult pieces of information using a principle. These principles are more general than either of the two pieces of information they reconcile. The creation of general knowledge is a broad category of which research is a subset, and research is considered a good thing.