Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon which refers to the discomfort felt at a discrepancy between what you already know or believe, and new information or interpretation. It therefore occurs when there is a need to accommodate new ideas, and it may be necessary for it to develop so that we become "open" to them. Neighbour (1992) makes the generation of appropriate dissonance into a major feature of tutorial (and other) teaching: he shows how to drive this kind of intellectual wedge between learners' current beliefs and "reality".

Beyond this benign if uncomfortable aspect, however, dissonance can go "over the top", leading to two interesting side-effects for learning:

On cognitive dissonance and sour grapes

On application of the theory to Aids

Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger and associates, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen. While fringe members were more inclined to recognise that they had made fools of themselves and to "put it down to experience", committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).

Ordeal is therefore an effective — if spurious — way of conferring value on an educational (or any other) experience. "No pain, no gain", as they say.
  • the more difficult it is to get on a course, the more participants are likely to value it and view it favourably regardless of its real quality.
  • ditto, the more expensive it is.
  • the more obscure and convoluted the subject, the more profound it must be. This has of course been exploited for years to persuade us of the existence of the emperor's clothes, particularly by French "intellectuals" and "post-structuralists". (I recently came across the wonderful phrase "intellectual flatulence" which perfectly describes such rubbish.)

It is not, however, so much the qualities of the course which are significant, as the amount of effort which participants have to put in: so the same qualification may well be valued more by the student who had to struggle for it than the student who sailed through.

I get more emails about this page than any other single paper, mainly suggesting that I must have put an extraneous "not" in the initial version of an earlier paragraph: I have clarified the expression, but I (and the research) stand by the point. In reply to one query I went into some detail—and it seems a pity to restrict it to that particular correspondent (but thanks for posing it, Kathryn):

    "There are less dramatic parallels in more normal life. I recently had an email from an immigration officer on the Mexican border who found in this an explanation for illegal immigrants who still use the services of shysters who promise to obtain permits for them, despite all the evidence and publicity to the contrary. In that case it comes from sheer desperation--and the same may be the case for those who buy in to fraudulent cures for cancer offered on the net. In anthropology, a number of commentators have noted how "rites of passage" often reinforce their potency by involving humiliation and even sexual degradation (La Fontaine, 1985, from memory). Even fraternity hazing practices have similar features, and cults have always exploited this phenomenon. Perhaps the clearest was "est" (Erhard Seminar Training) in the 1970's which I gather continues in a slightly different guise. And then there is the routine phenomenon of people who pay vast amounts of money for designer labels and cannot/will not see that they are being exploited.

    "Of course it does not always work: Barker 1984 reported that the retention rate of the notorious "Moonies" was only about 3% after a couple of years, but they went in for "love-bombing" to draw people in and only gradually initiated them. Lifton (1961) pointed out that once removed from the immediate reinforcing environment such "brainwashing" did not tend to stick.

Are many educational courses sufficiently psychologically powerful to have such an impact? Probably very few, apart perhaps from some very expensive MBAs (which may for all I know, be worth the money). A few years ago in the UK there was a Master's in educational psychology which was notorious for its workload and unforgiving assessment. I knew several of its graduates, most of whom fervently believed it was the best course in the country and rather looked down on graduates of other easier courses; some however, were equally fiercely critical of its "ordeal" component. There are several examples of elite military training (for the Royal Marines and Special Air Service in particular in the UK) which pursue such an approach, and for whom the rejection and drop-out rate is a source of pride. And there is something in the loyalty engendered by old-style "public school" education in the UK: "I was beaten every day at school and it never did me any harm!" One could move on from this to the pathology of co-dependence...

At a more personal and minor level, one course I used to run has a reputation of being tougher and more demanding than parallel courses at other institutions (and the handbook carries a "health warning" to that effect), and our graduates do feel proud of having completed it and value it highly (at least the ones who were still speaking to me by the end of it!). I of course would like to believe that that is a purely rational judgement based on its excellence, but there may be an element of cognitive dissonance in it...

And here is an interesting up-date a year after the world failed to end according to the prediction of Rev. Harold Camping

Up-dated 27 May 2012

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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