Sunday, May 1, 2011

Why We Believe: Part 3 (Cognitive Dissonance)

In my last few posts, I have discussed the psychology of religious belief.  Specifically, I have written about why people believe certain religious ideas when there is little evidence for them, and why we hold onto these beliefs so tenaciously in the face of contradictory evidence.  In Part 1 and Part 2 I talked about how we are socialized into our religion's beliefs, and how these beliefs are very practical.

A third reason why many people hold tenaciously to religious beliefs, is that religious people make sacrifices to join and maintain their membership in the religious group.  This seems a little counter-intuitive at first. However, social scientists have shown again and again that if people make a personal sacrifice to join a group, or remain within the group, they view the group more favorably than people who don't make equivalent sacrifices. 

In their classic study showing this fascinating side of human behavior, Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills invited Stanford college students to join a group that would be discussing the psychology of sex. However, before the students could join the sex-discussion group, they had to undergo an entrance test. He divided the students into two groups: one group had to undergo a "severely embarrassing" initiation procedure where they read aloud lurid, sexually explicit passages from racy novels (and for the 1950's, this was extremely embarrassing), while another group only had to undergo a "mildly embarrassing" initiation by reading aloud sexual words from a dictionary.

After the initiation, students then listened to an identical audio recording of a sham "group discussion," purportedly of the group they had just been initiated into. The recording was made so that it was as boring and uninformative as possible. The group wasn't even talking about sex - only the secondary sex characteristics of birds. Students in the recorded "group discussion" stammered, hemmed and hawed, made rambling comments that were off topic, or said they hadn't done the required reading on bird courtship practices.

Finally, the students rated how much they liked the discussion and the members of the group they had just joined. The students who had only undergone "mild initiations" saw the discussion for what is was: boring and worthless. They correctly thought the student who came unprepared was irresponsible and let the group down. However, the group who underwent "severe initiations" thought the group was interesting, exciting, and rated the group members as attractive and sharp. They even forgave the unprepared student who hadn't done his assigned reading. They thought his honesty was refreshing!

This experiment has been replicated many times using a variety of initiation techniques (like painful electric shocks or physical exertion) and always shows the same results: people like groups more when they undergo severe initiations. The reason why is explained by cognitive dissonance theory, first elucidated by Leon Festinger in 1957. Cognitive Dissonance Theory says "there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions)." When there is an inconsistency in beliefs, attitudes, or actions, then individuals will feel uncomfortable (dissonant), and will usually change their beliefs in order to harmonize them with their actions. This congruence of beliefs and actions minimizes this mental uncomfortableness called, in fancy pants psychology lingo, cognitive dissonance.

So, how does Aronson's and Festinger's ideas of cognitive dissonance apply to religious beliefs? Well, people will make tremendous sacrifices of their time, energy, and money to religious organizations. They do this in order to build and support the church they belong to, to earn favor with God both now and in the afterlife, to convert other people, to pass on the tradition and beliefs to their children, and to advance their social status in the group.  Members devote their entire lives to the teachings and beliefs of the church for these reasons. According to Cognitive Dissonance Theory, these sacrifices cause members to view the church in a more favorable light than they would if they did not sacrifice for the group.  The sacrifices serve to lock-in the membership and protect membership from disconfirming information.

Joseph Smith, a religious genius and master of understanding human psychology, was way ahead of Festinger when he said:

"A religion that doesn't require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation. For it is by the medium of this sacrifice, and this alone, that a person knows that a course of life he or she is pursuing is according to the will of God."

When LDS members bump into information that is contradictory or disconfirming of their beliefs, it creates a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance. This causes them to push back and engage in mental defenses that minimize the threat of this information. Festinger describes how difficult it is to try and change someone's belief when they have already invested so much in this belief: 

"We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks. But man's resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view . . . ."

We should remember this when we try to change someone's opinion when they have a life-time of sunken-costs into it.  It's going to be nearly impossible unless people are asking questions themselves.  Perhaps this is exactly why the church demands so much sacrifice from its members, why most LDS males go on missions, why women are encouraged to have family over graduate school and having careers, why we pay 10% of our income to the church, why we are never paid for church service, why we promise to consecrate all our time and possessions to the church in temples, and why LDS worship services are so long and so boring (seemingly by design).  All these factors serve to make LDS members all the more committed and all the more resistant to change our minds in the face of contradictory evidence.

One final point: I don't think the LDS leaders designed a church based upon the theories of Leon Festinger on purpose. However, organizations that demand personal sacrifice are going to be more successful than organizations that don't. This is true for our church, just as it's true for many other churches or secular organizations; military service starts with boot camp, you are hazed at military academies and elite special force groups upon entrance, you start at the bottom of any pyramid scheme, medical residencies start with a grueling year as an semi-abused intern, college fraternities have initiation rights, etc, etc.  Groups that demand sacrifices from members to join it, will have members that are all the more committed to it's cause - whether it's good or bad or indifferent - and will therefore be more successful than groups which don't.  And having highly devoted church members greatly benefit the institution of the church.

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