The founder 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.
1) An 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 feelings.
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.
3) An 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.
It makes 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.
Petty and 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.
Furthermore–and 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.