Cognitive Dissonance, or Why It Is Futile to Attack Strong Attitudes

Cognitive Dissonance

Whether you’re planning a political campaign or preparing a speech, you’ll inevitably run into some strong unfavorable attitudes that your audience holds. Most people’s natural tendency is to directly attack these attitudes in the hopes of breaking them. Cognitive dissonance theory shows why it is usually a bad idea to attack strong attitudes and beliefs: you can use strongest arguments and strike down all the counter-arguments, and still you won’t change their position.

Introduction to Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the dark side of human rationality. In essence, once a certain belief or idea gets a hold of us, we may reject any incompatible ideas even if they come with better evidence. Cognitive dissonance often leads to confirmation bias: a tendency to select only evidence that supports our existing beliefs; conversely, we overlook evidence that threatens the existing beliefs.

An even more unfortunate side effect of attacking strong attitudes is attitude polarization: strong attitudes, even when attacked with strong arguments, don’t diminish but paradoxically become even stronger.

Confirmation Bias

Studies on confirmation bias show that people not only don’t change their position when faced with conflicting evidence, but they in fact become even more convinced of their original position.

Capital Punishment Study. A seminal study on confirmation bias asked participants to read two scholarly articles on capital punishment: one article argued that capital punishment deters crime and the other argued the opposite. Subjects who favored capital punishment found the supporting study to be better researched and more cogent; the report against capital punishment, in their eyes, was unconvincing. Of course, the subjects who were against capital punishment reached the opposite conclusions. When all was said and done, the participants side became even more committed to their original view.

Global Warming. In a relatively recent study subjects read two reports on global warming – one acknowledging it and the other one denying it. Subjects who didn’t believe in global warming thought that the author of pro-global warming report was less of an expert. Of course, the subjects who believed in global warming reached exactly the opposite conclusions.

Futility of Winning Moral Arguments

An experiment by Jonathan Haidt illustrates nicely the futility of “winning” the moral arguments.  Haidt asked his participants to read the following story:

Julie and Mark are sister and brother. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the each. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other.

After telling the story, he asked his subjects this question: Do you think it is acceptable for two consenting adults, who happen to be siblings, to make love?

Of course, most subjects immediately answer no. When asked why, people exclaim something like “incestuous sex leads to genetically abnormal offspring”. When Haidt points out that the siblings used two forms of birth control, no one says, “Oh, well, in that case it’s okay”. Instead, they search for other arguments, like “incestuous sex will harm their relationship”. When Haidt points out that in this case their relationship improved, people still cling to their view. Most people just say, “I know it’s wrong, I’m just having a hard time explaining why.”

Here again, you could strike down all the arguments people use to justify their moral views or dogmas, and they still won’t change their position.


The more ingrained a belief is the more difficult it is to break through it. Whenever possible, it is always best to adapt your message to your audience’s beliefs instead of attacking them.  For example, if they think that global warming is a non-sense, instead of trying to persuade that they are wrong, you’d rather argue that environmental measures will give a competitive edge in international trade.

The concept of positioning in marketing is based on a very similar idea: you don’t challenge a position which is already entrenched but rather find an empty slot in the consumer‘s mind for your product.

Of course, all of this does not mean that arguments are totally useless. Rather, arguments are vain when it comes to moral judgments and deep-rooted beliefs.