Peter was a successful banker and the vice president of one of the biggest banks in the state. He was also a very intelligent guy who can “magically” transfer his customers’ money to his own account without attracting his bosses’ or clients’ attention. However, although he was sure that nobody knew about his behavior, he was still not content with what he was doing. He became more and more distressed because what he did was just a sign of his greed. He felt that he was committing a sin, an unacceptable behavior. He knew that he had two options: He could stop stealing the money of others and be content with what he has (this means he never becomes a rich person, but he stops sinning,) or continues to steal customers’ money and becomes a rich person. Needless to say, being a rich person was one of the most important things in his life. But he was also an observant man that would not permit such a big sin. Now, he is at a crossroads with two unappealing alternatives: he can choose not to steal and avoid committing a sin, or he can choose to steal and become rich.
The example given above-not stealing customers’ money versus not being a rich person-is just one possible case among others which human beings feel tension because of conflicting cognitions. Most people have personal beliefs, principles, and values shaping their lives fundamentally. Psychologists use the concept of cognition to imply all of these factors that guide our choices. Cognitions regulate our lives at any moment regardless of our consciousness of them. For instance, some people could venture everything to have more money because they have a cognition whispering “money, money, money,” or others can sacrifice everything for the sake of beliefs because of their cognition, “I believe therefore I am.” Even though human beings feel good when these cognitions drive us to success, good decisions, and a satisfying life, they turn out to be a source of frustration when a certain cognition conflicts with another one. In such cases, what we usually do is to find a way to resolve the conflict because we do not like to live with this tension. How then can we cope with this conflict?
The most common attitude under such circumstances is “self-justification.” If we turn to our example, Peter chose one of the two alternatives: continue to steal his customers’ money in order to become a rich person. Now he must find a good reason to justify himself and reduce his inner conflict:
“Not stealing is not the only way of being an honest person. You cannot be a bad guy just because of one unique behavior in your life, given that other people are also committing such sins, even worse sometimes.”
“My customers are the richest people in the State; it is not greed if I want them to share some of their money. Actually, they do not deserve it at all.”
“I did that to ensure the future happiness of my family; I know that making your family happy is more important than being honest.”
There can be many other reasons or justifications for such a behavior. The truth is that, Peter is trying to convince himself about his behavior. Although people’s attempts to convince themselves are not necessarily rational, they try to rationalize their behaviors by changing their cognitions or adding new ones.
All of the above are in the simple processes of Leon Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance. He contends that when an individual has two or more cognitions (beliefs, opinions, ideas etc.) which are inconsistent with each other, then tension emerges and people attempt to reduce this tension. How can the tension be reduced? The answer is through changing one or both cognitions or by adding new cognitions to alleviate discrepancies between cognitions. Our behaviors in such situations will determine the way we behave the next time we encounter a similar situation. Our ultimate behavior will depend on the strength of one’s cognitions (Aronson, 2004). If being a rich person is more important than not being greedy, a person is more likely to choose to steal money.
It is critical that the choice does not have to be right or rational. Let’s remember Peter’s excuses for stealing. He tended to believe that stealing was not as bad as he thought before because he found some justifications. Now he seems to feel better, but what about the next step? Most probably, he will continue to steal. As one can easily see, dissonance reduction is mostly an irrational behavior. Apparently, these irrational behaviors help people to defend their “self” or “ego.” Through the help of these irrational beliefs, people continue to define themselves as if they are good, smart, decent, or generous people. The underlying motive is the need for self-justification.
Cognitive dissonance from the perspective of religion
There are many musts and must-nots in a believer’s mind. One common practice of dissonance reduction appears at a point where one must choose between committing a sin or making a righteous decision. While preaching or reading holy books nurtures spiritual “cognitions” in a religious mind, obeying concupiscence and chasing essentially worldly goals will weaken this. After every sin that a believer committed, the battle of the cognitions starts between “I am a religious guy” and “I committed a sin, therefore I am not a decent person.” Since these cognitions cannot live peacefully together in a religious mind, one of the conflicting cognitions will grow out of this battle.
This process meshes with a religious idea that “Within each sin is a path leading to unbelief” (Nursi, The Second Gleam). If a person insists on performing a sinful act, he starts to disdain his sin. After a while, as he keeps behaving in the same manner, he becomes addicted to the sin and tends to see it as a normal act. Instead of acknowledging that the sins are witnessed by the angels and seen by God, an unrighteous man may like the idea that they may not exist at all, which is again comforting. With that idea, the cognition of “I am a religious person” is surpassed by a new cognition, “Maybe the religion that I accepted has some flaws” or “is questionable” which were added to relieve the pain arising from the cognition “I am not a good person.” From this point of view, people’s preferences about their beliefs are not independent of their behaviors which foster or challenge their religious cognitions.
One’s tendency to justify himself is usual but may not be what ought-to-be from the moral point of view. As people justify themselves, they will ignore whatever is wrong with their behaviors or cognitions, which will make them insensitive. Going beyond psychology’s objective description of human beings as rationalizing or justifying beings, religious sources suggest rejecting self-justification in most of cases. The Qur’an quotes the Prophet Joseph: “Yet I do not claim my self free of error, for assuredly the human carnal soul always commands evil, except that my Lord has mercy. Surely my Lord is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate” (Yusuf 12:53). This means, self-awareness about the conflicting cognitions is critical for human beings. When the person has inconsistent cognitions, choosing the option that does not solely serve to justify himself will prevent the person from going toward unbelief. Christianity also pointed to the importance of facing up to our sins: “I acknowledged my sin to You, and in my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalms 32:5).
Between the good and bad
Human cognitions determine their choices and actions, which in turn nurture, shape or weaken our cognitions. Repeating a sin a second time is easier than the first time, and we feel less dissonance because cognitions creating dissonance are replaced by those that bring inner comfort. People who exhibit extremely deviant and sociopathic behaviors should be reconsidered from this point of view. Extremely deviant behaviors should be considered a series of earlier choices which gradually led to the ultimate misconduct rather than the consequence of a unique decision made at a specific time.
Another possible implication of the theory of cognitive dissonance is the difficulty with judging absolute good or bad. Given the fact that cognitions may become weaker or stronger, personal views on the appropriateness of behaviors are subject to change. Human cognitions are potential mechanisms that lead one to behave in a certain way. Therefore, deviant behaviors might have a long history fed by the cognitions which turn out to be one’s rationale for inappropriate behaviors. As a result, cognitive dissonance uncovers the gray area between the continuum of good and bad through which human beings swing all the time.
Cognitive dissonance theory provides convincing explanations about how human beings make their decisions and behave in a moral or immoral manner. Also, it brings a resourceful perspective to illuminate spiritual experiences. It successfully explains how people swing on the path from good to bad and vice versa instead of considering them as dwelling on two discrete entities. Awareness of the above-mentioned processes is critical to increase self-awareness.
One last comment should be made about the role of conscience in cognitive dissonance. Although cognitive dissonance theory successfully explains many cognitive processes, a mental faculty that is responsible for recognizing the discrepancy in our cognitions and regulating the balance between them is conscience. However, psychology’s account of conscience is rather limited and inconclusive. Psychology offers evidence of the way human beings behave in dissonant situations. Religious resources, however, provide prescriptive guidelines to remain on the right track. As in the case of this unique theory, understanding the theories of psychology as well as making sense of them in the light of religious texts provides individuals with a heightened self-awareness.
- Aronson, E. 2004. The Social Animal, 9th edition, Worth Publishers: New York, NY
- Festinger, L. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.