Blog 6: Part 2, The Psychology of Dissonance

The Kernel:  The dissonance in Climate Crisis is often a result of a threat that produces responses initially justifiable to ourselves but unjustifiable to others. As social creatures, we usually frame risk through group norms. And when we do that, we avoid taking the longer path of further investment of time and resources in procuring situation-specific data. This avoidance bypasses the risk of potentially preventing us from responding to threats in a timely and appropriate way.

When our initial response and our group response are at odds with each other, we resolve this difference using one or several of three ways. This resolving allows us to eventually reframe our initial reaction to fit both the group’s response as well as a new one for ourselves. Even though this helps us remain consistent with the group norm (and finally to ourselves), it also produces inaction towards Climate Crisis.

The Details: In the first part of this Dissonance blog, we dealt with how we overcome cognitive dissonance by marginalizing the incompatible (dissonant) properties of new evidence against our pre-existing norms. Recalling the smoker example, the smoker rationalized her smoking by selectively pointing to exceptions to the rule (such as examples of smokers living a long life), or even pointing to smoking as less hazardous than the facts would show.

In this part two of Dissonance, we will look at what is the value of dissonance and whether it has a protective function. We will also look at the different framing to understand the possible origins of cognitive dissonance and to what end does it serve in solving a general adaptive problem. We will also look at the differing strategies in managing dissonance, and what possible clues it can give us to unlock the mysteries of social inertia.

Why are threats to pre-existing norms filtered? The common recurring theory I have come across thus far is that we have a high deference to our social group to legitimize the new threat as well as to determine how much we integrate that threat into our decision making. Hoffman (2012) states that we are cognitive misers who, when investigating a complex issue such as Climate Crisis, “often simply learn what our referent group believes and seek to integrate with our own views.” Krieger (1995) seconds this group framing with a species-continuation angle, “If our species were ‘programmed’ to refrain from drawing inferences or taking action until we had complete, situation-specific data about each person or object we encountered, we would have died out long ago.”

Powell & Menendian (2016) round this deference to the group norms off with “To function efficiently, our brains have evolved processes for simplifying the perceptual environment and acting on less-than-perfect information…… Scholars have long observed a tendency within human societies to organize and collectively define themselves along dimensions of difference and same-ness”. I argue that difference and same-ness can be construed to the non or conformance to the group norm.

Another way we can see the power of group hegemony is the following story from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2006 book, Tipping Point. He mentions two psychological tests were conducted in attempts to explain the ‘bystander phenomena’ in a 1964 Kitty Genovese fatal stabbing where 38 neighbors heard her screams for 30 minutes and did not call for help. The tests, as well as the results, were:

  1. Staged Seizure emergency (a patient faked a seizure in a room adjacent to the test subjects)
    1. 85% responded when subjects thought they were the only one listening next door
    2. 31% responded when subjects thought there were 4 others listening
  2. Smoke seeping under the door emergency (pumping fake smoke underneath a door)
    1. 75% responded when subjects thought they were the only one in the room
    2. 38% responded when subjects were in a group

The conclusion from this is when people are in a group, the responsibility becomes diffused. They assume 1) Someone else will call for help, but more importantly, 2) If no others are responding, the problem can’t be a problem. These tests went on to show, in Kitty’s case, it is not no one called the police despite 38 persons heard her scream; it is that no one called BECAUSE 38 persons heard her scream. Gladwell concludes using the term Power of Context to says that people are more sensitive about their environment than they seem. When no one is responding, the problem can’t be a problem. 

This group hegemony is also supported by Pike (2010) in that the public becomes demotived and retreat from action when leaders are not acting on Climate Crisis, indicating to the public this is not serious, or urgent, or even worse, no solutions are available. Leaders are members of an institutional field that has influences on the hegemony of the social and cultural field. By seeing no one cares enough about the issue as well as in order to justify our inaction, we filter out the threat or seek ways to minimize or rationalize it. 

By seeing no one cares enough about the issue as well as in order to justify our inaction, we filter out the threat or seek ways to minimize or rationalize it

Pike (2010)

So, thus far we see cognitive dissonance is explained as a need to remain consistent with the values, practices, norms, and beliefs found in our deferent group(s), especially if this is the group from which we derive a personal sense of identity and belonging. 

However, Henriques (2011) goes further by positing that we are not only motivated for consistency with our deferent group, but to ourselves as well. He quotes Swanson (1988) who through his book, Ego Defenses and the Legitimization of Behavior, advances the idea that ego defenses are “justifications that people make to themselves and others—justifications so designed that the defender, not just other people, can accept them” (p. 159). Accordingly, there is a motive to (1) maintain a consistent, relatively stable justification narrative of the self and (2) maintain a justifiable image in the eyes of others. This two prong motive is what Henriques (2011) termed Justification Hypothesis.

Henriquess (2011) goes on to add that the Justification Hypothesis is susceptible to social hegemony for this reason:

The point of the Justification Hypothesis is that the self-consciousness system, a system developed under the pressure for social justification, is designed as to allow “downloading” the justification narratives of the current cultural context and utilizing those narratives for individuals to navigate their social environment. Because the human self-consciousness system built under such social pressure can be thought of as the mental organ of social justification, obviously then, the justification system is sensitive to cultural context (emphasis added). 

Therefore when events unfold that are in contrast to the implicit societal narrative, the need to make sense out of them and to have a shared justification narrative with others for what is happening is extremely powerful.

… when events unfold that are in contrast to the implicit societal narrative, the need to make sense out of them and to have a shared justification narrative with others for what is happening is extremely powerful.

In the same vein of deference to group hegemony, Brulle and Norgaard (2019) further supports dissonance is the crossroad of hesitation to prevent cultural trauma to the cultural basis of a social order. They clarify this trauma comes from large-scale social changes (disrupting status quo), as well as severe dislocation of existing social practices. Here we see the same deference to the social norm. They also further add that an inadequacy of the current habitus (deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions) to take on low or zero carbon practices leads to disengaging with or, worse still, denying Climate Crisis.

Interestingly, it is here I weave in the Justification Hypothesis to add that Brulle & Norgaard’s disengaging and denying is the justifiable act to others. However, since the proposed eco- green action above must be credible enough to be justifiable to self in the first place (before moving it to the sphere of justifying to others), we now have a conflict between the legitimacy to self and the illegitimacy to others. There are three common steps to resolve this conflict (the following steps were retrieved from their source[1] verbatim):

Altering The Importance Of The Original Cognitions
One of the methods of reducing cognitive dissonance is to alter the importance of the original cognitions so as to reduce the psychological discomfort. Altering the importance of original cognitions could either mean that you increase the attractiveness of the chosen alternative, or decrease the attractiveness of your cognitions. 


A smoker who knows smoking is injurious to health will justify his smoking by saying “Death will take me when it’s supposed to.” or “What’s meant to be will happen.” or “Smoking is recreational for me, it’s not an addiction.” Through this justification, he is decreasing the importance of his original cognitions (of smoking being bad for health) so as to reduce any dissonance that he might feel.

(Editor’s note: In part 1 blog, Low Hanging Fruit Effect, Confirmation Bias, Belief Polarization, Framing Risk, & Mistrust and Reactance fit into this category.)

Adding New Cognitions To Support The Conflicting Behavior
Dissonance is experienced when the behavior we practice is conflicting with our beliefs, as is known. Another way of reducing this discomfort is to add new beliefs which support the conflicting behavior. Adding new beliefs helps outweigh the dissonance beliefs, which reduces cognitive dissonance to a great extent. 


A woman who is overweight has been advised by her doctor to follow a certain diet, exercise, and lose weight so as to reduce any possible health risks. Her diet has been carefully discussed and designed, and it completely does away with junk food that poses a threat to her health. The woman knows why dieting is important, and that it is for her health, and not for any silly reason. Yet, she gorges on cakes, donuts, burgers, and other fatty food that is strictly taboo for her. The woman tells herself that, “It’s okay, cheating once in a while is allowed!” or “I’ll just exercise extra tomorrow and work this off.” or “The doctor is being unfair, my diet doesn’t really have to be this strict.” or “He didn’t say when I was to start following this diet. It could be from next week, for all I know! Why not enjoy now?” By telling herself this, she reduces the dissonance which she feels when cheating on her diet, as she has added new cognitions which support her conflicting behavior, which will outweigh her original belief about the need for a diet.

(Editor’s note: In part 1 blog, Wishful Thinking, Delusion, and Institution Gradualism fit into this category)

Changing Behavior Completely
Changing behavior completely means that we stick to our original cognitions, and change the conflicting behavior completely so as to act according to our beliefs. Here, importance is given to the original cognitions over the conflicting ones, and thus, cognitive dissonance is reduced. However, it can be really difficult for human beings to adopt this method of reducing dissonance, especially when both conflicting cognitions seem equally attractive. 


An intelligent, highly ambitious woman values men who are similar to her, and despises those who lack determination and ambitions. Yet, her new boyfriend is a laid-back man who does not seem very interested in working or making anything of his life. The woman’s behavior of dating this man is conflicting with her original belief of despising such men. To reduce the dissonance she is feeling, the woman gets clear about what she wants from her ideal partner, and decides that she can no longer date this guy, and that she has to be with someone who matches her mindset. The woman reduces her psychological discomfort by breaking up with her boyfriend, and thus, changing her behavior completely so that her internal consistency is managed[2].

(Editor’s note: These are taking on the inconvenience to one’s lifestyles to reduce both the demand for energy [biking over driving] in tandem with reducing the size of the carbon footprint in the remaining balance of energy use [electric car preferably using green energy]. Greta Thunberg’s 2 weeks sail across the Atlantic for the UN meeting epitomizes this act)

Thus, processing social inertia through the Justification Hypothesis framework, the first two strategies manage dissonance by altering/ augmenting the original cognition so that it results in an altered/augmented cognition justifiable to both group norms and to ourselves. This way, we achieve group consistency as well as self-consistency.

In summary: Using Climate Crisis, dissonance is often a result from a threat that produces responses initially justifiable to ourselves but unjustifiable to others. As social creatures, we often frame risk through group norms. This navigating risk by group proxy avoids the risk of investment of time and resources in procuring situation specific data, a procuring act that would potentially prevent us from responding to threats in a timely and appropriate way.

This deference to group proxy is especially true when the threat is a complicated one to comprehend, such as Climate Crisis in this case. This is also true when the threat is not here and now, incurring temporal and spatial discounting[3]. Because of this deference to group norms, we find ways to minimize the original cognition, or to inflate the chosen preference, or adopt new cognitions that would allow our chosen actions and thoughts to eventually become consistent with the narratives of both ourselves and the group. Even though this helps us remain consistent with the group norm (and finally to ourselves), it also produces inaction towards Climate Crisis.

The last strategy of managing dissonance from changed action in accordance to the new evidence, a strategy that sadly has failed on a mass scale thus far since Global warming achieved public prominence 30 plus years ago, will be investigated in a Part 3 blog.

[1] Retrieved from

[2] I argue that self consistency is a justification-to-self act, weaving in the Justification Hypothesis into dissonance management.

[3] See Close, Real, and Immediate blog

Reference Cited:
Henriques, G. (2011). A New Unified Theory of Psychology 2011th Edition. New York, NY: Springer

Hoffman, A. (2012). Climate Science as Culture War. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2012.

Gladwell, M. (2006). Tipping Point. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company

Pike, C. et al (2010). Climate Communications and Behavior Change: A Guide for Practitioners. The Climate Leadership Initiative (2010)

Kreiger, L. (1995). The Content of Our Categories: A Cognitive Bias Approach to Discrimination and Equal Employment Opportunity. The Stanford Law Review 1161. 

Powell, J. A. & Menendian, S. (2018). The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging. Other and Belonging, Issue 1, Summer 2016.

Brulle, R. & Norgaard, K. (2019). Avoiding Cultural Trauma: climate change and social inertia. Environmental Politics, 28:5, 886-908.

Swanson, G. E. (1988). Ego Defenses and Legitimation of Behavior (Americn Sociological Association Rose Monographs). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

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