Cognitive Dissonance in Religion and Spirituality

Cognitive Dissonance in Religion Cognitive dissonance theory was developed by Leon Festinger more than fifty years ago as the most influential consistency theory of attitudes (Fanzoi, 2009). This theory argues that we often justify and rationalise our behavior in order to maintain cognitive consistency (Franzoi). In the classical cognitive dissonance experiment conducted by Festinger and J Merrill Carlsmitch, (Festinger, 1959, as cited in Franzoi, 2009) where a group of people were asked to perform two 30-minute mundane boring tasks where some were paid $1 and others were paid $20.
At the end of the tasks, one group was asked to relay the message that the tasks were “very enjoyable” and “fun” to the next group of participants. There was also control group where they were not required to lie. At the end of the experiment, the entire group of participants were interviewed and asked the question how fun and interesting they actually found the tasks to be.
The result of their finding showed that the $1 liars actually showed more enthusiasm in telling others that the tasks were “very interesting” and “fun” than the group who said so for $20. The $1 group was experiencing greater discomfort by telling the tasks as “very enjoyable” when they felt it was actually boring tasks whereas the $20 liars have more justification for their action. The cognitive dissonance experienced by the $1 liars naturally motivated to change their attitude in order to reduce the dissonance.

According to Franzoi (2009), there are some strategies commonly employed to reduce cognitive dissonance such as changing one’s attitudes, adding more consonant thoughts, altering the importance of the discrepant thoughts, reducing perceived choice, making selfaffirmations to overlook current dissonance and changing behaviour. Having laid a little ground work on Cognitive Dissonance, I now wish to examine how we can observe cognitive dissonance occurring in one’s religion and spirituality.
I will attempt to establish the premise that one’s spirituality may effect dissonance in one’s religious beliefs. “Religion is a fixed system of ideas while spirituality is the personal views on the fixed system of those ideas” (Ventis, 1995, as cited in LUTZ, L. 2003). “Given the Cognitive Dissonance in Religion facts that religious beliefs can be challenged by the critical historical studies, and cognitive dissonance would be generated when this occurred resulting in unconscious alteration of beliefs and attitudes” (Burns, 2006).
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When situations become inconsistent with one’s belief, dissonance would occur and needs to reduce it become obvious. When one is being perceived as hypocritical, such as “not practicing what he preaches, one would engage an unconscious strategy to reduce the dissonance often through the misattribution of arousal to a source other than one’s own discrepant behaviour” (Burns). This is an effective way “to maintain one’s self-concept as a psychologically consistent and moral person” (Fried and Aronson, 1995; Aronson, 1999, as cited by Burns, 2006).
In a 1975 study of young women participating in a Christian youth program were first asked to state their beliefs publicly concerning the divinity of Jesus. They were then exposed to information aimed at disconfirming the divinity claim. The study found that those who believed Jesus’ divinity and also considered the disconfirming information as bona fide dealt with the cognitive dissonance by strengthening their belief in the divinity of Jesus. Those who dismissed the disconfirming information as true did not intensify their stance.
The study showed that in some cases “the dissonance can actually reinforce original attitudes” (Burris, Harmon-Jones, and Tarpley, 1997, as cited in Burns, 2006). Kimberly Mahaffy (1996) did a study on religion and how it effects cognitive dissonance (Mahaffy,1996, as cited by MCCLUNG, 1999). “This study consisted of participants who were self-proclaimed lesbians who were either associated with a Christian church previously or presently” (MCCLUNG). The objective of the study was to determine do these women experienced dissonance when they realized their sexual orientations.
Her finding concluded that the pre-evangelical Christians experienced more dissonance than their counter-parts and some women resorted to denying the supremacy of the Bible and thus Cognitive Dissonance in Religion believe that their sexual orientations may not be against their beliefs (Mahaffy, 1996, as cited by MCCLUNG, 1999). My personal association with two friends who are gay who regarded themselves to be committed Christians, high cognitive dissonance appeared to occur when they first realized their sexual orientations; they even attempted suicides.
They claimed to have made attempts to change their behaviour, sought medical treatments but to no avail. They eventually conceded their current lifestyle was not by choice. I would like to cite an observation of cognitive dissonance in my personal spirituality. I used to hold strong conviction that God has ordained the church I pastor to be in Mid Valley; its existence there has been ordained. There has been much self-affirmation with providence for the first eight years confirming and intensifying that stance.
However, tension started to develop the last two years when financial commitment became burdensome. Cognition dissonance of spirituality became obvious with questions held in great tensions: “Why do we need to continue paying high rental to stay in Mid Valley? ” vs. “But isn’t God able to provide? ” “How do we justify paying so much with little result to show? ” vs. “But isn’t it worth it if even one soul has been saved? ” “Aren’t we called to be in Mid Valley? ” vs. “May be God is redirecting our path to elsewhere; better use the money to buy own building. The dissonance to remain in current location and the contemplation to relocate became a spiritual crisis. Coping strategies began to emerge. One member has suggested it is alright to relocate with the hope of returning once we consolidated. The same member altered the importance of the discrepancy with his remark, “It’s crucial to relocate to conserve resource than to stay on till a crisis looms large. ” I personally entertained the notion of financial limitation as sign of divine redirection. As long as dissonance remains high, justification intensifies.
Once I embraced new attitudes justifying relocation, dissonance Cognitive Dissonance in Religion seemed to reduce significantly. With newly changed attitudes and beliefs, previous justification supporting old beliefs become irrelevant. From the observation of studies done by Burns (2006), Burris, Harmon-Jones, and Tarpley (1997, as cited by Burns, 2006), Mahaffy (1996, as cited by MCCLUNG, 1999) and from the reflection of personal affect, one could reasonably conclude that cognitive dissonance has been observed to occur in religion and spirituality.

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Cognitive Dissonance

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