Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Understanding Cognitive Dissonance Part I: How Thought Conversion Works



Robert Lifton’s Thought Reform model remains the gold standard describing how manipulative groups can cause a person to transform, accepting beliefs and practices that they otherwise would reject. Steven Hassan has also described an important aspect of manipulation that Lifton's Model does not discuss regarding the role that cognitive dissonance plays in manipulation.


Hassan states that there are three intrinsic aspects of the self: a person’s thoughts, their emotions and their behavior. He also adds in information as another factor, but for now, consider the three internal aspects of a person.


Human beings need a degree of consistency, and the aspects of self must all be congruent or in agreement. Consider this simple example: If a person thinks that it is wrong to ride a bike, they generally will express negative emotions concerning bike riding, and they will not engage in bike riding, likely doing things that discourage people from riding bikes. Now imagine that this person is forced to ride a bike for some reason. This creates a great deal of psychological stress for them, because their thoughts and emotions oppose their behavior. If compelled to ride a bike for very long, the person will have to create some justification to ease their emotions as well as their thoughts to decrease the stress that they experience.


According to Hassan, if a force, group or person can gain some degree of control over just one of the aspects of self of an individual, they have a very high likelihood of converting the other aspects of the person. In terms of our example, compelling our anti-bike exemplar to ride bikes will eventually result in making a bike believer out of him. The individual, because of the nature of how the mind works, will have to shift to accommodate the behavior. The stress of cognitive dissonance is so powerful and psychologically painful, most people will follow the path of least resistance, converting the other remaining elements of self to accommodate the element that is out of sync.


Hassan includes the aspect of “information” as another element of self, because when a person is bombarded with information, this also produces painful dissonance and acts just like another element of self. Information can cause a person to shift beliefs as well.

Consider an example of how cognitive dissonance can cause a
person to change their mind. I like the example of a car salesmen and an impulsive decision to purchase a car. Imagine that you have gone to the car dealer where you purchased a vehicle for service. You have no real interest in buying a car, and you go to the dealership with no such intent. In fact, it is not in your best interest at the time to purchase a car, and it behooves you to just use the one you have. But as you drive in, a new car catches your eye. The new model really is nice, and you like the way it looks as you drive by to get to the service area.


Then someone comes out to you from the service department to explain that your car’s warranty has expired, and they discovered that a particularly expensive component of the car needs to be replaced. Your emotions have been stimulated. Not only have your emotions been engaged through your like of the look of the car, you’ve actually thought about how nice it would be to have one while you were waiting. The dealer has the part you need in stock, and it will just be another hour to complete the repairs. You decide to stay to wait on the car, but you are emotionally engaged because you did not anticipate having such a high repair bill which creates a great deal of stress for you.



You have another hour to wait, but you finished reading all the material you brought with you. You pick up some literature on the new model, and you wander out into the showroom to actually look at the new model. You are very stressed and confused about the high repair bill, and this does not fit with what you anticipated. It doesn’t make sense to you that the car should need repairing at this point, and it certainly should not cost so much. Feeling a little trapped, you have just begun to feel cognitive dissonance because your feelings and your thoughts about your old car do not match sense. Your emotions and the situation have just influenced your behavior, and you have taken action. Now you have engaged two aspects of the self.


As you stand in the showroom, you think about how you don’t need a new car. You should just pay the repair bill. Cars have problems and they show the signs of ware and tear. It’s really not in your best interest to buy a car at this time, and the one you have now meets your needs. But as you stand there in the showroom under the guise of occupying yourself while you wait, you are approached by a salesman. He reads the signs of stress on your face, and he may have even asked the service department about your circumstances.


He approaches you, and he offers to let you take a test drive while you’re waiting. You figure that you might as well drive the car since you did really like the way it looked and wondered how it handled on the road. Bingo. That salesman knows that he is well on the way to making a sale. The more he engages your emotions and the more small shows of behavioral compliance he can elicit from you, the greater his chances of selling you the car. The salesman knows what he’s doing, and he appeals to Cialdini’s principle of scarcity to engage your emotions even more. He tells you the car that you want is actually the very last car on their lot. They also have a limited time offer on financing that just so happens to be available for a short time, and he would have to check, but the deal may be gone tomorrow, along with the car itself.


From an emotional standpoint now, you really do not want to think about your old car. This has become a problem for you, and the fact that you did not anticipate problems is painful. At the same time, the idea of buying a new car that you like is quite pleasant. You have a choice as to which emotions you will entertain, even though it does not feel much like a choice because it is subtle. Who wants to occupy their time considering that life is not really fair, things wear out and break down, and even when you take good care of your belongings, they may not last? How much better to think about something pleasant instead? You can entertain the idea of how much you like that new model in the showroom. And your behavior has now further reinforced your shifting emotions, because you really do like how the car felt when you drove it. Your behavior and emotions have begun to shift into a state of agreement making your thoughts the odd element.


The salesman knows that he has a fish that is getting quite interested in the bait he’s put out. Now he will focus on getting your cooperation, because even the small acts of compliance will dramatically increase his chances of getting you to change your mind. If he can get you to give him your name and phone number, he has just dramatically increased his chances of selling you the car, even if you still do not want to buy the car. The process of cognitive dissonance has begun. The individual has the choice to walk away from the action and rethink his actions and emotions to bring them into alignment with his thoughts (No New Cars!). Entertaining the emotions involved and continuing the behavior that demonstrates interest in a new car creates stress if a person’s thoughts do not correspond to these emotions and behaviors.


The salesman also knows that he is highly likely to make a sale if he has engaged emotion and secured compliance, because these two factors will strengthen. Actually, the fact that he has your name and phone number may be helpful to him, but it is just important to him because he has secured your cooperation. You then call the bank to see exactly how much money you have in your savings account.


You started out your day planning only to have your car repaired, and now you are considering buying a new car. What has happened?


Lets look at the process again.




You started out with no dissonance. Your thoughts, emotions and behavior all corresponded, and you were comfortable.




Your emotions became engaged, challenging what you believed and what you anticipated in a negative way. You also saw something that appealed to your sense of pleasant emotion at the same time. You allowed the stress and the pleasure to overflow into another facet of self, and you change your behavior, though it seems quite insignificant.



The process progresses, and you have been engaged even further. The emotional stress spills over into your behavior as you try to get information in order to make a decision about what to think.


At this point, you have put yourself into a position where you will need to make some kind of decision about the information you have learned. You are subject to emotional stress, but your behaviors have introduced some new emotions – ones of pleasure that counter your stress. Your problem of confusion over the stress of having a high car repair bill that you did not anticipate makes the emotions associated with buying a new car quite pleasant. It seems to solve a problem for you. You can shed the old car and buy a new one, even though it is not exactly in your best interest from a thoughtful perspective.


Discontinuity created when thoughts, emotions and behaviors creates a great deal of psychological stress, and engage and control of one element of the self usually always causes the all three elements to shift in some way. The individual must choose whether they will follow the path of least resistance or whether they will work to bring their self back into alignment. If you do nothing at this point, your thoughts will shift to accommodate your behavior and your emotion. Either way, you need to make a change. If you do choose not to buy the car, you will have to accept the situation and stop entertaining the emotions and behaviors that do not correspond with buying a new car. If you choose to follow the path of least resistance, you will change your thinking and buy the car. You cannot float indefinitely in this dissonance and discontinuity.


In an upcoming post, I will explain how information challenges the self, introduces its own type of dissonance, and how we can choose to respond.