The concept of cognitive dissonance was put forward by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. His theory proposed that we have an inner drive to be in a state of harmony which we strive to achieve and maintain by aligning our attitudes, values, thoughts and behaviours. This is known as the principle of cognitive consistency and is something we need in order to be in the world.

If two or more of our thoughts are in conflict, we experience cognitive dissonance. The term also relates to our thoughts and beliefs being in direct conflict with messages coming from outside, namely the government, media and social media. At the time of recording this podcast, restrictions in the UK (and in many places around the world) are being eased leading to a huge sense of anxiety and unease for many people. Conflicting messages from government and public health officials is leading to levels of cognitive dissonance of a kind we have never experienced before as we try to navigate the ongoing, life-threatening uncertainty of Covid-19.

In this podcast we explore the concept of cognitive dissonance, look at some of the many examples that are causing it and have a chat about the impact of being in such unnatural and prolonged states of inner conflict for so long.

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The handout accompanying this podcast can be downloaded as a PDF here or viewed as a webpage here.


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As a way of managing cognitive dissonance, people often create particular narratives – stories they tell themselves – or distort their reality to justify or explain their actions, or to put up smoke screens to prevent them (and others) from seeing the truth. Nazi officers involved in war crimes claimed they were not guilty because they were simply ‘following orders’. Jeffrey Epstein frequently paid for the education of many of the girls and women he abused. Managing cognitive dissonance through a process of rationalizing acts as a plaster on a wound and doesn’t deal with the cause of the wound itself. As such, the dissonance is only temporarily kept at bay.

This can be seen in the following two documentaries that are well worth watching to deepen your understanding of cognitive dissonance. The first – The Act of Killing – is important but particularly dark viewing so please try to make sure you’re feeling robust if you choose to watch it.

For something a little on the milder – and free – side, see the documentary ‘Right Between Your Ears’. It follows a sect of Christians led by Harold Camping, who predicted that the second coming of Christ would occur on May 21st 2011 with the final destruction of the entire planet (caused by earthquakes, fire, brimstone and plagues) happening on October 21st 2011. Needless to say, this was the fourth time he had predicted such things to happen with the prior three obviously not coming to pass.  The documentary follows him and his group of followers for four weeks leading up to the supposed end of the world. And the two weeks after where there’s a hell of a lot of dissonance to waded through…

Finally, this article on cognitive dissonance set within the context of the current pandemic very much complements the podcast to help you further your understanding of this very important psychological concept.