September 28, 2020

Mental models

#130 – Carol Tavris, Ph.D. & Elliot Aronson, Ph.D.: Recognizing and overcoming cognitive dissonance

“If someone really is certain about something, they have almost certainly frozen their ability to change their minds when they need to.” – Carol Tavris

Read Time 27 minutes

Renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson are the co-authors of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), a book which explores the science of cognitive biases and discusses how the human brain is wired for self-justification. In this episode, Carol and Elliot discuss how our desire to reconcile mental conflicts adversely affects many aspects of society. The two give real-world examples to demonstrate the pitfalls in attempts to reduce mental conflict, or dissonance. The examples reveal that no one is immune to dissonance reduction behavior, how intellectual honesty can be trained and lastly, how to think critically in order to avoid engaging in harmful dissonant behaviors.


We discuss:

  • Carol and Elliot’s respective background, collaboration history, and their decision to write Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) [4:00];
  • The theory of cognitive dissonance, and real examples of dissonance reduction in action [11:15];
  • How Elliot advanced the theory of cognitive dissonance [23:00];
  • The evolutionary reason for dissonance reduction, and cultural differences in what causes cognitive dissonance [30:30];
  • The great danger of smart, powerful people engaging in dissonance reduction [35:15];
  • Two case studies of cognitive dissonance in criminal justice [39:30];
  • The McMartin preschool case study—The danger in making judgements before knowing all the information [43:30];
  • How ideology distorts science and public opinion [56:30];
  • How time distorts memories [58:30];
  • The downside of certainty [1:05:30];
  • Are we all doomed to cognitive dissonance?—How two people with similar beliefs can diverge [1:09:00];
  • Cognitive dissonance in the police force [1:21:00];
  • A toolkit for overcoming cognitive dissonance [1:27:30];
  • Importance of separating identity from beliefs, thinking critically, & and the difficulty posed by political polarity [1:30:30];
  • How to impart the lessons from their work into future generations [1:48:00]; and
  • More.


Carol and Elliot’s respective background, collaboration history, and their decision to write Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) [4:00]

How Peter met Carol

  • When Peter read Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) in 2012, “It was love at first sight.”
  • Peter immediately Googled Carol and found a phone number and cold called her
  • He somehow cajoled her into coming down to San Diego for dinner for a discussion on cognitive dissonance which began their friendship

Carol and Elliot’s collaboration

  • They have been collaborating for ~50 years after meeting at an American Psychological Association convention
  • Elliot was receiving an award for his book, The Social Animal
  • And Carol was tasked with writing an article about his work for the magazine, Psychology Today
  • They found that they both shared a love for social psychology, and a love of communicating social psychology to the public

Their work together:

  • They have made documentary film called “Prejudice” in 1973 published by CRM Learning (CRM was the parent company of Psychology Today)
  • And wrote Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

Carol says their partnership was an “interesting harmony”

Elliot took Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance and made it into a focus on self-justification

⇒ Example, The Iraq War and how it came to be

  • Elliot told Carol, “I think that George Bush was not lying to the American people. I think he was doing what all of us do, which is make a decision and then justify it by cherry picking the evidence to show that we were right in making that decision.”
  • Elliot makes an important distinction: 
    • The term “cherry picking” implies consciously cherry picking
    • But cognitive dissonance reduction is an unconscious process — “it flies just below the level of awareness
    • In the case of George Bush, Elliot says, 
    • He simply was hell bent on invading Iraq so that he downplayed the importance of the evidence that would have cautioned him not to invade. . .And I think that is something we all do if we’re not careful.”

“In so many domains of our lives, the way we think can really get us stuck, and it’s hard to get out of the mistakes we’ve made.” —Carol Tavris


The theory of cognitive dissonance, and real examples of dissonance reduction in action [11:15]

An explanation of cognitive dissonance and dissonance reduction

Leon Festinger’s smoking example: What happens when a person who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day starts to see the evidence that smoking can cause cancer and other diseases? 

  • That person now experiences cognitive dissonance, “I am a smart, sensible person, yet I’m smoking cigarettes even though I know it causes cancer.”
  • What does he do with this cognitive dissonance?
    • Dissonance is a negative state — It feels terribly unpleasant, like being extremely hungry or extremely thirsty, but it takes place in the mind
    • The simplest thing to do is to give up smoking
    • If a person tries to give up smoking and can’t, he now has to deal with the cognitive dissonance in another way
    • You might try to convince yourself that it’s really mostly correlational evidence and therefore not really definitive, 
    • You could convince yourself that obesity is a health risk and by smoking two packs a day, I’m keeping myself from eating all of those rich desserts, 
    • You could say, “well, it’s debonair to fly in the face of danger and smoke a cigarette like Humphrey Bogart in the movies” … i.e., I would rather live a shorter but more interesting life than one where I was forever being cautious
    • All of these together can be used together as a way of allowing someone to smoke and still feel good about themself
    • They can be used to help you “sleep at night” — The ability to reduce dissonance is what allows us to say, “I’m doing something stupid, but look, here are all the reasons that I justify it.” 

A study looking at pregnant women who smoke and rationalize their dissonance 


{end of show notes preview}

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Carol Tavris, Ph.D.

Carol Tavris received her Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Michigan. Her books include Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), with Elliot Aronson; Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion, and The Mismeasure of Woman. She has written articles, op-eds, and book reviews on topics in psychological science for a wide array of publications — including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the TLS — and a column, “The Gadfly,” for Skeptic magazine. She is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and has received numerous awards for her efforts to promote gender equality, science, and skepticism.

Elliot Aronson, Ph.D.

Elliot Aronson is an American psychologist who has carried out experiments on the theory of cognitive dissonance. He is the only psychologist to have won the American Psychological Association highest awards in all three major academic categories: Distinguished service in writing in 1973, distinguished teaching in 1980, and distinguished research in 1999. And in 2002, he was listed among the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century.

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  1. #130 – Carol Tavris, Ph.D. & Elliot Aronson, Ph.D.: Recognizing and overcoming cognitive dissonance
    “If someone really is certain about something, they have almost certainly frozen their ability to change their minds when they need to.” – Carol
    I think this has been my problem all along and I need help.
    I had a nervous breakdown over 10 years ago and am still suffering from the repercussions of what I did….it seems like everything I do is a roadblock. And I’m convinced now I’m older theres no hope.
    I’ve lost family my livelihood my sense of a mess. I’m isolated and now have been convinced by a welfare worker to apply for ssd and having a mental disability I can get money from the state to live on.. that would keep from work..and I have been given a section 8 voucher and cannot get an apartment to rent. I have lost hope…
    I want to see my family…im stuck in a motel that town welfare is paying for and have no home..income…family..I want to be part of a community..i have been abused in shelters my car totaled..and suffering from isolation and loneliness.

    Thank you.

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