Cognitive dissonance

A person’s beliefs, attitudes, and values (henceforth, ‘beliefs’) are stored in his brain in the form of nerve cell pathways. Over time and with frequent use, these neural pathways become increasingly worn in, such that it becomes difficult to alter them and so the beliefs that they correspond to. If these beliefs are successfully challenged, the person begins to suffer from ‘cognitive dissonance’, which is the psychological discomfort that results from holding two or more inconsistent or contradictory beliefs (‘cognitions’) at the same time. To reduce this cognitive dissonance the person may either (1) adapt his old beliefs, which is difficult or (2) maintain the status quo by justifying or ‘rationalising’ his new beliefs, which is not so difficult and therefore more common. The ego defence of rationalisation involves the use of feeble but seemingly plausible arguments either to justify one’s beliefs (‘sour grapes’) or to make them seem ‘not so bad after all’ (‘sweet lemons’). ‘Sour grapes’ is named after one of the fables attributed to Aesop, The Fox and the Grapes.

One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. ‘Just the thing to quench my thirst’, quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: ‘I am sure they are sour.’

In the case of Aesop’s fox, the cognitive dissonance arises from the cognitions ‘I am an agile and nimble fox’ and ‘I can’t reach the grapes on the branch’, and the rationalisation, which is a form of ‘sour grapes’, is ‘I am sure the grapes are sour’. Had the fox chosen to use ‘sweet lemons’ instead of ‘sour grapes’, he might have said something like, ‘In any case, there are far juicier grapes in the farmer’s orchard.’ Another example of rationalisation is the student who fails his exams and who blames the examiners for being biased. In this case, the cognitive dissonance arises from the cognitions ‘I am an intelligent, capable person’ and ‘I failed my exams’, and the rationalisation, which is once again a form of ‘sour grapes’, is ‘I am sure the examiners are biased’. Had the student chosen to use ‘sweet lemons’ instead of ‘sour grapes’, he might have said something like, ‘In any case, failing my exams has given me more time to study / gain experience / examine my career options / enjoy student life.

One of the most famous examples of rationalisation comes from Leon Festinger’s book of 1956, When Prophecy Fails, in which Festinger discusses his experience of infiltrating a UFO doomsday cult whose leader had recently prophesised the end of the world. When the end of the world failed to materialise, most of the cult’s members dealt with the cognitive dissonance that arose from the cognitions ‘the leader prophesised that the world is going to end’ and ‘the world did not end’ not by abandoning the cult or its leader, but by introducing the rationalisation that the world had been saved by the strength of their faith.

Human beings are not rational, but rationalising animals. If they find it frightening to think and painful to change, this is in large part because thinking and changing represent major threats to the beliefs that make up their sense of self. Given this state of affairs, any tectonic shift in a person’s outlook is only ever going to occur incrementally and over a long period of time. Moreover, such a tectonic shift is likely to be provoked by an important deterioration in the person’s circumstances which overwhelms his ego defences and leaves him with no alternative but to adopt the depressive position. In Remembrance of Things Past, the early 20th century novelist Marcel Proust tells us, ‘Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.’

Adapted from

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  1. Trackback: Ego defence mechanisms « The Meaning of Madness

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