Cognitive Dissonance and Learning

Cognitive dissonance is a distressing mental state in which people find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know, or they have opinions that conflict with other opinions they hold. Wikipedia explains it this way: “The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.”

The concept of cognitive dissonance is best illustrated by Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes.

The fox tried in vain to reach a cluster of grapes that were dangling from a vine above his head. Although the fox leaped high to grasp the grapes, the delicious looking food remained just beyond his reach. After several attempts the Fox gave up and said to himself, “These grapes are sour, and if I had some, I would not eat them.”

The fox’s withdrawal from the pursuit of the grapes clashed with his thinking that the grapes were tasty. In other words, he altered his existing thought process to create a new belief system. By changing his attitude toward the grapes, he was able to maintain an acceptable explanation for his behavior. Rather than being honest with himself and thinking “I’m too short” or “I need help,” he made excuses to alter his entire thought process.

Learning to be honest with oneself is a characteristic of maturity. As William Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, where Polonius gave advice to his son, Laertes,

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Learning to be honest with oneself is a significant learning.