"Cognitive dissonance" is a term, like "nazi" and "fascist", that has been so abused by people with personal agendas that most of those who think they know what it means, don't.
The response of cultists to disproof is, however, fundamental to many of the arguments made in this book. With that in mind, therefore, here's a key part of Festinger's own forward to When Prophecy fails.
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.
How and why does such a response to contradictory evidence come about? This is the question on which this book focuses. We hope that by the end of the volume, we will have provided an adequate answer to the question, an answer documented by data.
Let us begin by stating the conditions under which we would expect to observe increased fervor following the disconfirmation of a belief. There are five such conditions.
- A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he behaves.
- The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual's commitment to the belief.
- The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
- Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.
The first two of these conditions specify the circumstances that will make the belief resistant to change. The third and fourth conditions together, on the other hand, point to factors that would exert powerful pressure on a believer to discard his belief. It is, of course, possible that an individual, even though deeply convinced of a belief, may discard it in the face of unequivocal disconfirmation. We must therefore, state a fifth condition specifying the circumstances under which the belief will be discarded and those under which it will be maintained with new fervor.
- The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence we have specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, we would expect the belief to be maintained and the believers to attempt to proselyte or to persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.
These five conditions specify the circumstances under which increased proselyting would be expected to follow disconfirmation.
Basically, the more someone invests in an obviously false belief, the more likely that person is to seek out others with the same delusion and, finding some, announce their continuing commitment to the belief by trying to convert still more people to it.
An aside: Notice that the actions cultists take in doubling down on disproven beliefs resolve, and do not illustrate "cognitive dissonance".
"Cognitive dissonance" refers to the intellectual discomfort felt by a person who believes A to be true but feels compelled to act as if Not-A were true - what Pope Paul VI called the voice of God echoing in the depths of man and the more prosaic refer to as our moral conscience. Cognitive dissonance is therefore the opposite of what most "experts" proclaim it to be: it is a protective mechanism whose role is to promote sanity by prompting the acceptance of reality over fantasy, not a symptom of, driver of, or necessary precursor to, insanity.
In practice dissonance can fail to prevent a person from slipping over the cliff from mere hypocrisy and into delusion and lunacy - but true lunatics feel no "cognitive dissonance"; all of their intellectual dissonance has been resolved or avoided through internalization of the falsified belief as capital T true.
In a more general sense, some believers who have committed themselves to a belief they know to be false but for which they have social support will do anything, including even killing their own children (e.g. Jonestown) , to avoid having to recognize that they know that what they are doing to further the belief is morally wrong.
The persistence of modern socialist belief is a case in point. Human equality of worth may be the signature value attested to by progressives and socialists world wide, but the entire history of world socialism since Marx has been one of mass murder, concentration camps, slavery, starvation, and the total degradation of the masses at the hands of an utterly corrupt leadership.
Thus socialist reality absolutely contradicts socialist belief and yet the believers continue to fervently believe. Of perhaps a hundred thousand people at a recent climate march in New York demanding the replacement of the the horrible American capitalist system that gave them everything they own -including the right to make their demands- probably 80,000 or more were young, idealistic, believers from affluent, American, families. The behavior is insane; utterly impossible to justify on rational grounds, but it's real, it's what this book is about, and it's fully predicted by the patterns of human behavior exposed in Festinger's research.