The real cognitive dissonance

Paul Raven @ 09-12-2010

“You keep using that phrase; I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I’ll raise my hand to a mea culpa on this one; cognitive dissonance is a concept whose discovery and explication I owe to none other than William Gibson, and I doubt I’m alone in that among the readership of Futurismic.

Thing is, like a lot of complex psychological concepts, the vernacular conception of cogDiss doesn’t quite match up with the original idea. Take it away, Ars Technica:

…within psychology, [cognitive dissonance] describes a somewhat distinct process, where people are forced to reject an item they actually like. Given this bit of awkwardness, people are prone to dealing with it in a fairly simple manner: they conclude that they never really liked the item that much in the first place. This finding, which implies that behavior can drive belief instead of the other way around, has remained controversial, but researchers are now claiming to have identified the neural activity that drives cognitive dissonance.


As expected, the authors are able to demonstrate cognitive dissonance in action: once an individual has chosen against an item, their ratings of it plunge. This effect was much, much smaller when a computer made a choice for an individual, although the later personal choice offered these subjects restored a bit of its impact. So, the researchers have confirmed both the previous work on cognitive dissonance and that of its critics: some fraction of the effect seems to be driven by people actually having stronger preferences than they state, but not all of it.

This is – like most neuroscience at this point – simply the first step on a long road of discovery, and things will doubtless turn out to be yet more complex. But in case you’re wondering why this research matters…

… the study pretty clearly shows that behavior isn’t driven simply by what we believe; our actions can feed back and alter our beliefs. Which, really, shouldn’t have surprised anyone, given the degree of post-hoc rationalization that most people engage in. However, as the authors note, this fact seemed to have escaped those who developed the economic systems that assume that people are rational actors.

I believe the word is “zing”.