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Cognitive Consistency

Humans are theorized to have a natural need to form coherent mental models of the world, and thus they will exert effort to resolve any contradiction between two beliefs, or between a belief and a behavior.  As influentially stated in 1957 by Leon Festinger, the theory included two hypotheses:

  1. The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance.
  2. When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance. (page 3)

Festinger explicitly connects these abstract ideas to religion through the example of the Great Disappointment of 1843-1844, when William Miller’s prediction of the Second Coming was apparently disconfirmed.  The theory of cognitive dissonance predicts that people will join together to defend their beliefs against disconfirmation, perhaps resulting in religious innovation, when these conditions exist:

  1. A belief or set of beliefs is held with conviction by a number of people.
  2. The belief, at least in part, has sufficient implication for the affairs of the daily world so that the believers take action in accordance with the belief.
  3. The action is sufficiently important, and sufficiently difficult to undo, that the believers are, in a very real sense, committed to the belief.
  4. At least some part of the belief is sufficiently specific and concerned with the real world so that unequivocal disproof or disconfirmation is possible.
  5. This possible disconfirmation actually occurs, usually in the form of the nonoccurrence of a predicted event within the time limits set for its occurrence.
  6. The dissonance thus introduced between the belief and the information concerning the nonoccurrence of the predicted event exists in the cognitions of all the believers, and hence, social support is attempting to reduce the dissonance is easily obtained. (pages 247-248)

A major source of this application of the theory was a field observation study of a millenarian group Festinger conducted with Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter, and published as the 1956 book When Prophecy Fails.  However, the theory is not limited to such rare events as this.  For example, the disconfirmation might be the failure to help a sick person who received a religious healing ritual.  The second main hypothesis of the theory, that people actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase dissonance, may explain social distance between two religious groups with very different beliefs, even without any particular disconfirmation events.

Around the year 1950, many psychologists and social scientists developed theories of cognitive consistency, notable among them the balance theory of Fritz Heider (1946, 1958).  Originally, Heider was concerned about cognitive consistency within some well-defined situation, especially attitudes toward different elements of a causal system, such as when a person commits a harmful act and the person harmed develops a consistent negative attitude toward both the act and the perpetrator.  Then he expanded his thinking to consider a number of configurations, of which the most relevant to religion might best be described as the following.  Person A and Person B often come into interaction with each other, in situations where their attitudes toward a religious Belief may be salient.  From the standpoint of Person A, there are two relationships: to Person B and to Belief.  If Person A has positive feelings toward Person B, accepts Belief, and Person B also accepts Belief, then the situation is cognitively consonant.  If Person A has positive feelings toward Person B who accepts Belief, but Person A has no attitude toward belief, there is a mild dissonance which can be resolved by Person A developing a positive attitude toward Belief.  But if Person A strenuously rejects Belief, then the dissonance causes a real problem, that might be resolved by coming to have negative feelings toward both Person B and Belief, or positive feelings toward both.  The transition from strong dissonance to consonance can often be very difficult, and has an unpredictable outcome, especially if other people and beliefs are also involved.

The literature on cognitive consistency and social behavior is vast and couched in a variety of terminologies.  One modern way of studying theories of cognition in complex social systems is through computer simulation, for example using a multi-agent system that models the attitudes of a large number of people (Bainbridge 2006).  For example, one can program a simulation to represent a social network in which agents start with randomly selected attitudes toward a belief, perhaps as simple as positive or negative, and a random pattern of social relations with neighboring agents.  The simulation will select agents at random, check whether the agent agrees with one of the adjacent agents on the belief, and create a social bond between the two agents if they agree, or remove any bond if they disagree on the belief.  Over time, the social network will evolve to maximize consonance, in which only agents who agree have social bonds, creating a pair of separate but overlapping social networks, one accepting and the other rejecting the belief.  A more complex version of the same program could find a dissonant triad of Agent A, Agent B and Belief, and at random change Agent A’s attitude toward either Agent B or Belief.  This also results eventually in a consonant situation, but with the potential for emergence of many local groups that are in agreement with each other, often separated from groups that share the same Belief but are situated on the other side of groups that disagree with them.  Then one can program the simulation to give a particular Belief the power to motivate agents who accept it to build temporary social relationships with agents who disagree, which over time can have the effect of spreading the Belief throughout the simulated society.

The theory that religious beliefs can have a distinctive ability to overcome cognitive dissonance was proposed over a century ago by pioneer psychologist William James (1907).  His complex set of ideas does not map perfectly onto modern psychological theories, partly because his fundamental philosophical point was that a belief is true to the extent that it is pragmatically useful.  Specifically he argued that religious beliefs promote a better quality of life and benevolent society, quite apart from any scientific evidence about their objective truth or falsity.  He described many of the empiricist philosophers and scientists of his day as “tough-minded,” which caused them to be irreligious.  That is, they were especially sensitive to cognitive dissonance, demanding that all theories about the universe harmonize with each other.  In contrast, James said, people who were more religious were “tender-minded,” being more optimistic that contradictory beliefs could be simultaneously true.  Some of his extensive discussion of this paradox suggested that religions might offer principles that transcend dissonance, thereby bringing people together.



Bainbridge, William Sims.  2006.  God from the Machine: Artificial Intelligence Models of Human Cognition.  Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira.

Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter. 1956. When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Festinger, Leon. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston, Illinois: Row, Peterson.

Heider, Fritz. 1946. “Attitudes and Cognitive Organization.” The Journal of Psychology 21: 107–112.

Heider, Fritz. 1958.  The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations.  New York: Wiley.

James, William. 1907.  Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longmans, Green.

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