of Cognitive Dissonance Theory compared the psychological drive to
physiological hunger.[i] Just
as hunger is a motivation to eat and rid oneself of the hunger, dissonance is a
motivation to explain inconsistency and rid oneself of the dissonance.
Explanations, therefore, work toward satisfying dissonance just as nutrients
work toward satisfying hunger. He suggested three modes that we use to rid ourselves
of cognitive dissonance.
individual can alter the importance of the original belief or new information.
Suppose that you believe in the Judeo-Christian God. If someone presents
evidence that contradicts your belief, you can alleviate the dissonance by
deciding that the existence of God is not important to you or that the new information
on his existence is irrelevant because the debate falls outside of human
understanding. Encountering the former is rare, but we see the latter on
occasion when discussing aspects of religion, particularly when an apologist
for biblical inerrancy finally surrenders to the idea that the Bible might not
be perfect. As one can decide that an inerrant Bible is not a necessity for
believing in God, the question of inerrancy becomes moot. Note that this avenue
does not necessarily resolve the discrepancy, but instead relegates it to a
matter of non-importance–a move that successfully eliminates the uneasy
2) An individual can change his original
belief. Suppose again that you believe in the Judeo-Christian God. If someone
presents evidence that contradicts your belief, you can also alleviate the
dissonance by deciding that the information is correct and your previous belief
was premature. We almost never see this in matters of religion because of the
perceived level of importance that childhood indoctrination has placed upon
Christianity. Someone who cares very little about religion, on the other hand,
is more likely to be persuaded by the veracity of the argument.
individual can seek evidence that is critical of the new information. Suppose
yet again that you believe in the Judeo-Christian God. If someone presents
evidence that contradicts your belief, you can also alleviate the dissonance by
convincing yourself that the new information is invalid. Needless to say, this
is what we usually see in matters of religion. Since religious people do not
want to trivialize or change their beliefs, finding information that supports
the original belief and/or information that brings the new evidence into
question is the quickest method to eliminate the cognitive dissonance.
Therefore, cognitive dissonance primarily drives confirmation bias. We will thus
consider this phenomenon for the remainder of the section.
perfect sense for an individual to want to study the issue in question when a
conflict arises, but unfortunately, we often fall victim to confirmation bias
and use illogical reasoning to rid ourselves of the conflict when it manifests
on important issues. In situations where the information cannot support our
decisions, such as the undeniable reality that we have based our religious
affiliations primarily on environmental cues (without any real knowledge of
other religions), we often resort to methods that will increase the
attractiveness of our decisions and decrease the attractiveness of the unchosen alternatives.
Cacioppo cite a number of studies in which subjects utilize the practice of
spreading the attractiveness of two contrasting decisions, even when there are
no objective facts on which to base the reevaluations of the alternatives.
People simply become increasingly sure of their decisions after they have made
them by “rationalizing one’s choice of alternatives, [which] serves to reduce
the cognitive dissonance produced by foregoing the good features of the unchosen alternative and accepting the bad features of the
chosen alternative.”[ii] When it
comes to religion, a believer will defend his faith and attack the alternatives
in part simply because he has already rendered a decision on the matter.
this is where the strength of the motivation kicks into overdrive–Petty and
Cacioppo explain that the effects of cognitive dissonance and the subsequent
practice of confirmation bias increase as the positions between the two beliefs
diverge and the perceived importance of establishing a position grows.[iii]
Could any two positions be in sharper contrast than the existence and
nonexistence of God? Could any dilemma be more important to the Christian than
whether or not God exists? It naturally follows that questions on the issue of
God’s existence provoke the most cognitive dissonance within those who are
deeply involved in the issue. As this debate generates the greatest amount of
cognitive dissonance, it naturally follows that people are increasingly willing
to accept explanations that alleviate the uncomfortable feelings and
decreasingly willing to consider disconfirming arguments. As the uneasiness
becomes more powerful, people become more willing to surrender to whatever
arguments are offered–just as when hunger becomes more powerful, people become
more willing to eat whatever food is offered. This will subsequently lead to
highly illogical justifications for maintaining highly important beliefs.