Saturday, 21 July 2007

Cognitive Dissonance

The Fox and the Grapes is a fable attributed to Aesop. The fox, upon failing to find a way to reach grapes hanging high up on a vine, retreated and said: "The grapes are sour anyway!" The moral is stated at the end of the fable as: It is easy to despise what you cannot get.

In psychology, this behaviour is known as rationalization or cognitive dissonance.

People experience cognitive dissonance in many ways every day and it relates to where people are trying to hold two conflicting thoughts at once.

For example:
1. I like smoking.
2. Smoking is bad for me.

To live with these two thoughts, the theory goes, one of them must change. Either I decide that I don’t like smoking and stop or I decide ‘well, the research isn’t really clear’ (Or ‘just one won’t hurt’, or ‘the damage has probably already been done’).

1. I am a nice person
2. I have just done something really mean to someone

To reconcile these people have to acknowledge that they are perhaps not so nice and show remorse (unlikely) or demonise the other person, to justify the mean behaviour by saying that ‘they are rotten and really deserved it’. (more likely).

Shakespeare was a dab hand at using cognitive dissonance. The following is from one of Shakespeare's more famous speeches, Julius Caesar Act III, Scene ii:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
(First thought : Caesar did evil)
The good is oft interred with their bones:
(Second thought : Caesar did good as well)
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
(Reinforce first thought)
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
(A challenge to the first thought : grievously? did the punishment fit the crime?)
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest,--
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honorable men,--
(Return to first thought. Caesar did evil, Brutus was honorable)
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
(Reinforce second thought : Caesar had a good side)
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
(Reinforce first thought)
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
(Throw doubt on first thought)
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
(Building conflict between first and second thoughts)
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once,--not without cause:
(More conflict : you once believed the second thought)
What cause withholds you, then, to mourn for him?--
O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason!--Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
(Pointing to the second thought as being the one to keep)

Methinks there is much reason in his sayings.

In the end, the citizens can't keep two conflicting thoughts. If Caesar was bad then his treatment by Brutus is acceptable, though the 'grievously' taints this treatment with some doubt. If Caesar was good then his treatment was wrong. Marc Antony carefully brings the crowd to focus on Caesar's good actions making it hard for the crowd to not decide that his treatment was unjust.


So, what prompted this post? I have been reading a book titled "Mistakes were made (but not by me)" by Tavris & Aronson. Well worth a read. It makes you (me!) look at all the self-justifications that can creep into your life.

On my 'politics' blog I will be looking at cognitive dissonance but in association with the recent events surrounding alleged terror suspect Dr Haneef.


  1. Isn't 'dissonance' a great word??
    so, how do you resolve the dissonance without justifications or despair?

  2. That's the problem, Gracie. We seem hardwired to avoid saying "I was wrong" and to immediately swing into self-justifications.

  3. I guess that is why the Muslims hate the West so much.

  4. Interesting. I suppose MA was disingenuously manipulating the cognitive dissonance of his hearers... as politicians do.

  5. I have often thought about how quickly we rationalise to our own satisfaction actions or events which upset us. I think we are less likely to exonerate ourselves, totally, when we are older & perhaps wiser?
    It seemed when I was younger, I never liked to admit it was 'my fault', but now, I can admit & accept that things -events, reactions, outcomes, have been my own doing.

  6. I run advanced driving seminars for fleet vehicle users and "cognitive dissonance" really crops up when I get them to talk about bad experiences when driving - It is quite hard to bring them to understand that practically all these experiences could have been avoided or alleviated by themselves by thought and anticipation. But it is always "the other bloke's fault". People just cannot accept that they may be poor drivers.
    (Ain't "The Bard" just wonderful? How he shows how a crowd can be played like an instrument.)


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