Thursday, March 12, 2009

Understanding Cognitive Dissonance Part III: Responding to Cognitive Dissonance

In the last three posts, we established that cognitive dissonance is the psychological stress experienced when a person is presented with information, asked to do something, or is encouraged to feel emotion that contradicts the different aspects of the self including thoughts, emotions and behaviors.

Steve Hassan adds “information” to these aspects of the self as another means of bringing about cognitive dissonance, as information has the power to produce this same kind of painful psychological stress that manifests when the aspects of self are challenged. If a manipulator can gain influence over one of the aspects of self or over the information that a person receives, the mind usually always shifts the remaining elements of self to conform to the aspect that the manipulator has affected, all in order to avoid great psychological stress. A salesman who makes you feel guilty or who can entice you to try a free sample has a much better chance of convincing you to change your mind about purchasing their product.

The first key to resisting this type of surreptitious manipulation and coercion is realization of how the process works.

Please also note this important point: Any aspect of the self and of information can cause a shift of all of the other aspects of self, given the right conditions.

The more pressure that is applied to a person under stress, the more likely that thought reform can occur, if the person is unaware of tactics of manipulation and their inner resources show depletion. The process of converting someone to new thoughts, emotions and behaviors is termed thought reform, a process identified by objective, predictable criteria (Lifton’s Thought Reform criteria, Henke’s Spiritual Abuse criteria, etc). Manipulative groups employ these methods and techniques in order to make new converts as well as keep existing followers under control in a closed social, ideological system. This blog post will concern itself specifically with how manipulative groups or even how individuals receive, attribute and process information that contradicts the group’s position.

When a member of a manipulative group encounters information that contradicts a closed group’s positions or any information that challenges the lofty status of leadership and authority within the group, cognitive dissonance ensues. This process is not pathologic, but it is indicative that your “self” has been challenged in some way. When a person who has been culled into a manipulative group is faced with information that will help liberate them from the milieu control that that the group has been able to establish for them, they will definitely experience cognitive dissonance as well. The process itself is not negative, but it is the process of conversion and realization. It is the covert use of these tactics along with the induction of cognitive dissonance in order to circumvent informed consent to both the covert nature of process of conversion itself and informed consent about the true doctrines of the belief systems employed by these manipulative and shame-based groups that is objectionable. These tactics are particularly objectionable when employed in the name of God in order to coerce, shame and manipulate earnest, trusting and unsuspecting people.

When presented with information that contradicts that of the manipulative group, the follower responds to the cognitive dissonance in predictable ways. From an example from my own past, I believed my own pastor to be very Christ-like and upright, and I admired him greatly. Over the course of time, I heard several things that he said that were very wrong and not Scriptural, but I ignored them, rationalizing that I must have misunderstood something he said. It created cognitive dissonance for me, so I used a type of denial to shield myself from the unpleasant realization that my pastor said something very doctrinally unsound. I also denied a behavior that he told me about himself that I just could not even believe, again telling myself that I did not have enough information and must have understood. I learned later that I had understood everything perfectly but rationalized and filtered out the painful aspects of the situation.

People experiencing cognitive dissonance can respond in a whole host of ways, but primarily they reduce to three basic categories.
  1. Deny the information (a type of withdrawal or isolation)
  2. Filter the information or rationalize it in some way (altering the information to control the amount of induced cognitive dissonance)
  3. Receive the information (inducing cognitive dissonance which may result in a change of opinion about the group)

Upcoming posts will discuss each response in greater detail.