Brain Pain–Part 1: Dealing with Dissonance

You don’t often hear the term consonance. But if you’ve ever heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, you have been exposed to the musical type of consonance.


The word comes from the word part “-son-” …that indicates “sound,” like in “sonic” and “sonata” …and the word part “con”…which indicates “with.” Thus consonance indicates sounds that go “with” each other in a harmonious way. Like the sounds made by a barbershop quartet.


But of course, not all sounds DO go together in a harmonious way.


And the word describing what enters your ears in the presence of these DIS-harmonious sounds is dissonance. The dis part implies “not” or “against.”

In musical dissonance, sounds “clash” with each other. The result is harsh, confusing, unsettling, and uncomfortable.


If you have a set of really good earplugs, or the kind of “ear muffs” that are used by marksmen at a shooting range, you might be able to drown out the dissonance.

ear muffs

But there is another kind of dissonance that earplugs and ear muffs can’t drown out.

Cognitive Dissonance:

The feeling of mental discomfort and agitation in your brain
created by attempting to hold two contradictory beliefs
inside the same brain at the same time


The “cogn-“ at the beginning of cognitive comes from a Latin word that means “to know.” In other words, it refers to the mind, and is related to words regarding using the mind, like recognize.

Cognitive Dissonance is a relatively recent term, coined in the 1950s. There is a famous book from that era that is a classic in Social Psychology courses called When Prophecy Fails.


The researchers who authored the book stumbled on a “flying saucer cult” just then forming, which was predicting “The End of the World.”

Finding people who were giving credence to flying saucers at the time wasn’t all that hard. A widespread spate of alleged sightings in the US, particularly the 1947 “Roswell incident,” had been in the news regularly, and the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still unnerved a lot of gullible people.





In studying historical records of apocalyptic groups of the past which declared specific dates for the Return of Christ or the End of the World, the researchers had come to a theory about what happens to members of such groups “when prophecy fails.” They outline this in the beginning of the book, and then embark on a case study of the new cult to see if their theory applied. It did, perfectly.

This theory has since been applied widely to other modern religious groups, and found to be accurate. Below is an excerpt from an excellent 1990 article on a website which uses the cognitive dissonance theory to evaluate what happened in the Jehovah’s Witnesses group when their date of 1975 for the beginning of the visible Kingdom on Earth (and many earlier dates they set for the same event) came and passed with no fulfillment. This is introductory material which explains the basis of the theory.

Leon Festinger’s Theory

In studying this phenomena, credit must be given to Leon Festinger for his cognitive dissonance theory, as developed in his book When Prophecy Fails, originally published in 1956 and co-authored by Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter. The authors comprised a research team who conducted a study of a small cult-following of a Mrs. Marian Keech, a housewife who claimed to receive messages from aliens via automatic writing. The message of the aliens was one of a coming world cataclysm, but with the hope of surviving for the elect who listened to them through Keech and selected other mediums. What Festinger and his associates demonstrated in the end was that the failure of prophecy often has the opposite effect of what the average person might expect; the cult following often gets stronger and the members even more convinced of the truth of their actions and beliefs! This unique paradox is the focus of attention in this article, and will be later applied specifically to the Jehovah’s Witness movement.

Festinger observes:

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. “We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his 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. ”

When Prophecy Fails focuses on the failure of prophecies to come true, termed disconfirmation by Festinger, and the accompanied renewal of energy and faith in their source of divine guidance. His theory presupposes the cult having certain identifying features, such as: (a) belief held with deep conviction along with respective actions taken, (b) the belief or prediction must be specific enough to be disconfirmed (i.e., it didn’t happen), (c) the believer is a member of a group of like-minded believers who support one another and even proselytize. All of these characteristics were present in the saucer cult.

Of particular interest in Festinger’s book is how the followers of Mrs. Keech reacted to each disconfirmation (failed date). Little attempt was made to deny the failure. The strength to continue in the movement was derived, not largely from the rationalizations , but from the very energy of the group itself and its dedication to the cause. This explains why proselytizing was so successful later in reinforcing the group’s sagging belief system. Festinger relates:

“But whatever explanation is made it is still by itself not sufficient. The dissonance is too important and though they may try to hide it, even from themselves, the believers still know that the prediction was false and all their preparations were in vain. The dissonance cannot be eliminated completely by denying or rationalizing the disconfirmation. But there is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct. Consider the extreme case: if everyone in the whole world believed something there would be no question at all as to the validity of this belief. It is for this reason that we observe the increase in proselytizing following disconfirmation. If the proselytizing proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it.”

In the end, the members of the flying saucer cult did not give up their faith in the Guardians from outer space with their promises of a new world. Despite numerous prophecies and the resultant disappointment accentuated by many personal sacrifices, the group remained strong. [Source]

I first encountered Festinger’s book and the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance while taking a Social Psychology course at Michigan State University in 1974. When Prophecy Fails was required reading, and accompanied a textbook titled The Social Psychology of Social Movements.

During that same period, I was a member (and had been for six years already) of a religious group called the Worldwide Church of God (WCG). WCG founder Herbert Armstrong had bombastically and dogmatically persuaded his supporters to accept his declaration that the year 1972 was the deadline for the members of his church to be whisked in some mysterious way to a “Place of Safety” prior to the biblically-described Great Tribulation which would devastate all nations on earth. That would be followed in 3 ½ years by Christ’s Return to set up an earthly Millennial Kingdom…in 1975. Armstrong had published a large collection of literature…booklets, magazine articles, letters to his supporters…which emphasized this scenario. The most significant publication was a thick booklet titled 1975 In Prophecy, garishly illustrated by noted sci-fi/horror comic artist Basil Wolverton (who was a member of the organization at the time.)




When the first part of this “modern prophecy” failed, regarding what was supposed to have happened in 1972, a number of followers had become disillusioned and left the organization.  But a large percentage had not, including my husband and me. At the time, it did not occur to me to apply the information I was learning in the social psychology course to my own personal circumstances! I could accept that it might apply to every other goofy cult on earth, but not to the sober, solid “truth” that I was learning from Herbert Armstrong. We were the exception that would prove the rule.

But the theory surely did apply, and the WCG followers—myself included—were a “textbook perfect” example of the predicted ways in which people deal with cognitive dissonance. We accepted Armstrong’s “excuses” for why nothing had happened in 1972, and his insistence that 1975 was STILL the target date for the return of Christ. We dug in and continued to financially support the efforts to spread the warning. We were enthused about making more and more converts to believe exactly as we did, because we subconsciously thought that would validate our own convictions in spite of the reality staring us in the face that related convictions had been proven abysmally wrong already.

In looking back and examining why I had not been totally disillusioned by the disconfirmation in 1972, I can only conclude it was because, after several years in the WCG, my husband and I had already invested so much of our time, efforts, emotions, zeal, and financial resources in the organization. The level of discomfort and confusion at the single event of the disconfirmation was not high enough to off-set what we viewed as positive aspects of our involvement. These included our positive experiences in the organization—weekly church worship services, socials, youth activities, weekly Wednesday night bible studies, national conventions with thousands of people of “like mind,” annual religious celebrations. Other positive aspects included the level of biblical “truth” which we had thought we learned from the group and which we didn’t believe was available elsewhere; and the many personal relationships which had been built with other church members—which we knew would end if we were to leave the organization.

All this, too, was correctly explained and predicted clear back in the 1950s by the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance introduced in When Prophecy Fails. The theory also correctly predicted what would happen when our next prophetic date came and went, 1975. The organization didn’t fall apart, Armstrong didn’t lose most of his following. He just made more excuses, adjusted his dates, and continued on. We ourselves hung on until 1978 before we finally “saw the light,” became totally disillusioned, and left. But the organization continued to grow after we left, until the death of the founder in 1986.

Scenarios very much like this have been going on, over and over, for 2000 years, since the times of the New Testament.  There was a big hubbub of gurus spreading dire warnings of The End around the year 1000 AD, but it also continued periodically throughout the centuries after that, right up to the present.

My particular area of research for the past 30+ years has been American history. Thus I’ve studied numerous American home-grown religious gurus and groups, that arose both before and after Herbert Armstrong, and that have put forth very similar speculative prophetic schemes, gathered supporters, and grown by leaps and bounds.

To date, ALL of these many, many, many prophetic pronouncements of the past 2000 years have failed.

“When prophecy fails,” what happens to all those faithful supporters whose generous tithes and offerings made possible the radio and TV programs, publications and personal appearances…and, more recently, websites, blogs, and Youtube videos…that assure the spread of these false schemes?

Common sense would suggest that those supporters would abandon the gurus and ministries which had misled them. Common sense would indicate they would accept the reality of the failure and get on with their lives, adjusting their priorities to give more attention to practical, down to earth matters.

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance has long since established that in most cases, common sense would be incorrect.

In fact, the theory does not only apply to situations in which “prophecy fails.” It has much wider applications.

Any time a person is forced to admit into their mind, and retain for serious consideration, two contrary pieces of information on any topic, there will be a sense of dissonance. Eventually the discomfort will lead to attempts to restore mental peace. And the methods chosen often parallel those used by people who deal with failed prophecy.

A simple example:

Consider a hypothetical person named Joe, a 40-year-old man who has been regularly smoking cigarettes since his youth, sometimes up to two packs a day.


He loves his cigarettes. He craves the smell of the smoke, enjoys rolling the cigarette between his fingers, the feel of the cigarette in his lips (“oral fixation”…) , the temporary relief from stress he feels when he drags on the cigarette.

In other words, inside his brain is a constellation of thoughts: “cigarettes are my friends,” “cigarettes provide me many pleasures,” “cigarettes are a harmless vice—smoking isn’t destructive in the way alcoholism or drug addiction is.” In other words, put simply, “Cigarettes are good.”

The cigarette smoking didn’t bother him much physically in his teens and twenties. And even in his early thirties, he just occasionally had a scratchy throat. But in the past few years, he’s beginning to notice some unpleasant symptoms more and more. He is short of breath at times; he has a nasty recurring cough that occasionally hangs on for weeks; he has a hard time shaking respiratory infections like bronchitis. It may take a while, but at some point, he just might begin wondering if some of this unpleasantness is related to his smoking habit. He might entertain the contrary thought in his head, “Cigarettes may be harming me.” But of course, they can’t be, because they are his friends! These two contrary thoughts lead to cognitive dissonance.

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance suggests he will try various methods to bring his mind back into a state of harmony. IF he would be able to honestly admit that all evidence points to the harm of the cigarettes, and would thus give up his belief that cigarettes are his friend, he might be able to embark on a serious attempt at giving them up. Of course the physical addiction to the nicotine might subvert that plan, but if it does, the dissonance will remain in his brain.

Common observation shows that long-term smokers seldom use the “honest admission” method to diminish the dissonance. But obviously, non-smoker friends and family may well begin nagging him to quit, telling him of the dangers of smoking. And this increases the dissonance. Unfortunately, smokers often choose to deal with this situation by avoiding non-smokers as much as possible, and surrounding themselves with fellow-smokers who “understand” and “accept” them. They may regularly hang out at the bar or the pool hall instead of heading home after work.

Of course, they can’t totally avoid close family members like wife and children. So they may tend to find ways to stop those nagging voices, particularly by responding so harshly that they drive a wedge between themselves and loved ones.

Hypothetical Joe had employed all these methods to attempt to calm the dissonance in his head. Then his grandfather, a life-long smoker himself, came down with lung cancer, and Joe had to watch him deteriorate and eventually die a miserable death. Once again, common sense would indicate that this should add greatly to the “smoking is bad” side of the dissonance in Joe’s brain. So much so that he’d begin facing the lie that cigarettes are his friend, and decide to reject it.

But common sense would again be wrong.

I guess you could say that the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance emphasizes how little influence common sense has at times on large numbers of people, especially when it is related to an idea of questioning an idea really precious to them.

In Joe’s case, Grandpa was close to 40 years older than Joe when he died. So Joe was able to reason this meant that he has plenty of time to give up smoking later, in time to head off cancer. MUCH later, some day when he “feels” like it.

It is interesting to note that if we insert Hypothetical Joe into the 1960s or before, he might never have had any external information enter his head contrary to his own positive vibes about smoking.

Magazine ads of the 1920s to 1960s often touted all the alleged “good features” of cigarette smoking.








Many even provided endorsements by medical experts—doctors, nurses, even dentists—of the safety and advisability of smoking.









And if Joe was experiencing unpleasant symptoms like coughing, he could comfort his brain with the conviction that he was just smoking the wrong brand.  If he found the right one, all would be well.



(There may have been no adverse effects reported regarding the nose, throats, or sinuses from smoking Chesterfields in 1953. But the report in the ad above noticeably omits any examinations of the lungs. Arthur Godfrey had a cancerous lung removed in 1959 at age 56, and received radiation treatments that saved his life. By the early 1980s, he had serious emphysema (probably resulting from his decades of smoking and the radiation), and died from that in 1983 at age 79.)



Yes, Brain Pain from cognitive dissonance related to smoking was much easier to “treat” back in the Good Old Days! Any nagging little doubt you had about a growing coughing or breathing problem was no match for Madison Avenue. You could take in unlimited positive information about smoking.

You could also surround yourself with an almost unlimited peer group of smokers since there were very few places where smoking was “off-limits.”  Your wife wouldn’t nag you…because she liked smoking too.






Your little kids wouldn’t nag you, because they knew how “good” smoking was for your nerves…





Yes, the kids were likely just waiting until they were old enough to smoke and be cool too.






And even if they were too young to smoke…their action figures could!




Your teen children may have already been experimenting with being cool out behind the shed with buddies, just like the glamorous stars they admired in the movies.






My mother was born in 1922. Mother never smoked, but many of her friends and family did… and she had a best friend in her later years who had been smoking since she was five years old.

Actors still smoke in movies, of course. But many people are startled to discover now just HOW much smoking went on in the heyday of Hollywood glamour. Looking at old films, it almost seemed like practically everyone in the movies smoked, non-stop.




Actors even posed for glamour photo shoots smoking.






TV stars of the 1950s would pose for testimonial ads in magazines, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to stop right in the middle of a show to promote their allegedly favorite cigarette (which was the show’s sponsor.)





And, in fact, right up until the 1960s, you could hardly go ANYWHERE without being surrounded by a cloud of smoke.




(The “What were we thinking…?” video above is from a public service program of the Utah Health Department. The producers of this fictional “flashback” clip captured quite effectively what flying the friendly skies could be like at its worst…particularly for non-smokers!– back in the 1960s.)

Treating cognitive dissonance used to be less of a problem for smokers than it is today, now that media advertising of cigarettes has been banned. The smoking proportion of the population is shrinking fast. Smoking is banned in most public facilities and a large percentage of privately-owned gathering places like restaurants. And smokers are barraged regularly with public service announcements like these, perhaps even on the pack of cigarettes they just bought.






Coming Attractions

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance is a very useful tool for understanding psychology and sociology, both in religious and in secular settings. It is applicable to examining both individual and group responses to the mental discombobulation that results when hopes, desires, dearly-held beliefs, life-long habits, preconceived notions, …and prejudices… meet reality.

This Brain Pain blog series will be exploring some of the ways in which cognitive dissonance has played a part in American History, in both religious and non-religious settings. We will begin in the next blog entry with the Great Granddaddy of failed prophecy in an American-grown religious movement, a scenario rife with cognitive dissonance that has long been dubbed by historians as

The Great Disappointment



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One Response to Brain Pain–Part 1: Dealing with Dissonance

  1. Pingback: Brain Pain–Part 4: Imminent and Inevitable | Meet MythAmerica

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