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Social Psychology – Conflicting Beliefs

Answers the Question

Why people have a bias to seek agreement between their expectations and reality?

How it Began

In 1954 Leon Festinger was working on a new theory of cognitive dissonance.  The theory focused on the view of the social world from the perspective of the individual.  Cognition was viewed as being any attitude, behaviour or emotion that made up a mental representation of the social world within an individuals mind.  Festinger’s research focused on how individual perceptions of other people, social groups and the physical world were cognitive representations and how inconsistency between the representation and reality causes the individual discomfort which in term drives attempts by the individual to reduce the inconsistency.


Festinger’s interest in a headline regarding a group, called the Seekers led by Mrs Keech.  The group believed the world would end on 21st December 1955, as a result of messages received by Mrs Keech through Automatic writing.   Festinger predicted that the failure of a space ship to arrive to take them to safety would create a condition of cognitive dissonance, resulting in the group members experiencing an tension which was unpleasant and that they would find a way to reduce it.  Festinger predicted that because of the commitment to the belief the Seekers would persist in their belief, becoming more evangelical than before.

The events of the night 21st December 2013 are described in Festinger’s paper When Prophecy Fails. He describes the reactions of the group to the failed prophecy.  The result was that Mrs Keech was ‘summoned’ to receive another message.  The message confirmed the belief system of the group.  The group was being tested and their goodness of the group had prevented the cataclysm from occurring.  A second message commanded the group to spread the message, which they duly did, phoning the newspapers and other news services that they could think of.

Therefore the discrepancy between the original belief that the world would end, and the cognitive dissonance caused by the world not ending was therefore overcome by the belief that the small group of believers had saved the world from destruction.

The impact of the study was enormous and a decade of research following the original study showed that dissonance theory was substantially correct but there were some limitations to the theory which meant that the theory had to change.

Key Terminology

Cognitive Dissonance – the feeling of discomfort when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel “disequilibrium”: frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, etc. Festinger, L. (1957)

Belief disconfirmation paradigm – happens when an individual is presented with information which conflicts with their beliefs. If the individual is unable to change their beliefs the conflict experienced could result in a rejection or denial of the conflicting information. A person unable to resolve the conflict will seek others sharing a similar belief to restore agreement of thoughts.

Induced-compliance paradigm – The induced-compliance paradigm is when a person internalizes an attitude that they were encouraged to express because they had no other justification.

Free Choice Paradigm – When making a difficult decision, there are things about the choice we don’t make that we find appealing and these features are dissonant with choosing something else. By choosing X, you are dissonant about the things you like about Y.

Effort Justification Paradigm – Dissonance occurs whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant activity to achieve a desired goal. One way of reducing dissonance is by the individual exaggerating how desirable the goal is.

In Brief

Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and we make efforts to avoid disharmony (or dissonance).

Cognitive dissonance refers to any situation which involves conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. This conflict in turn produces a feeling of discomfort which results in an alteration in one of the held attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

What does this mean for Organization Development?

The mismanagement of cognitive dissonance is a root cause of many problems in the workplace, especially when it comes to conflict management, bullying and performance management. What we think and do when confronted with two or more conflicting beliefs drive behaviour within the organizational setting. For example, we all make mistakes and therefore have to confront the conflict – I am a good person but I did something bad. And we get plenty of mixed signals, especially in change settings where there is a need for individuals to take more creative risks but the support system and environment embeds the belief that the risks won’t succeed.

Cognitive dissonance is especially powerful, and can make the workplace extremely uncomfortable for individuals and teams when the conflicting beliefs are about ourselves. To relieve the discomfort we may self justify or rationalize, which may involve making excuses for our bad behaviour or shifting blame rather than owning up. This behaviour can lead to good people falling into unethical or unwanted behaviour patterns which have far reaching consequences in regards to performance.

As Organization Development practitioners we need to be able to spot when cognitive dissonance sits at the root of organizational problems and then find productive ways to vent the discomfort associated with it.  This may included focused conversations, open space technology or game storming to open up communication and create space for perceptions to be aired and explored.

In general an OD intervention will need to promote and help individuals to own mistakes, and create a process to manage the discomfort associated with cognitive dissonance by role-modelling and advocating honesty, openness, feedback and a ‘no blame’ culture as positive and necessary components of a healthy workplace.