Prof. Joseph Levine

Senior Psychiatrist




Conversation 39: Cognitive dissonance and its perception through the “directorate of internalized figures”

By Prof. Levine & Dr. Salganik

The concept of cognitive dissonance was first proposed by the psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956. It is a situation of discrepancy between attitudes or between an attitude and an action derived from conflicting attitude. Cognitive dissonance expresses an inconsistency between any elements of knowledge, attitude, emotion, belief, or value, as well as a goal, plan, or interest. The theory of cognitive dissonance holds that conflicting cognitions serve as a driving force that forces the human mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to change existing beliefs, in order to minimize the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions [see Wikipedia entry on cognitive dissonance]. In other words, the theory is based on the idea that people strive for internal consistency and harmony in their beliefs and attitudes. When there is inconsistency or conflict, they experience discomfort, and this discomfort motivates them to resolve the inconsistency by changing their beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors.


Leon Festinger [1919-1989]

Although reducing cognitive dissonance may make it easier for a person, some of the ways to reduce cognitive dissonance involve distorting the truth, which can lead to wrong decisions. Festinger suggests that the dissonance can sometimes be resolved by finding and adding a third piece of information relevant to both beliefs. Ways to deal with the dissonance include:

Changing Beliefs: People may change one or more of their beliefs to make them consistent with each other or with their behavior.

Acquisition of new information: People may seek new information that supports their existing beliefs or helps justify their behavior.

Minimization: People may downplay the importance of the conflicting beliefs or behaviors, actually convincing themselves that the inconsistency is insignificant.

Seeking social support: People may seek support from others who share similar beliefs or engage in behaviors consistent with their own, providing a sense of validation.

Behavioral change: Changing a person's behavior to conform to their beliefs or attitudes is another way to reduce cognitive dissonance.

It is important to note that cognitive dissonance can manifest itself in different situations. Some common types include:

Belief-achievement gap: when a person's beliefs conflict with their perceived level of success or achievement.

Free choice dissonance: arises when a person chooses between two or more attractive alternatives, leading to discomfort about the rejected options.

Effort-justification dissonance: occurs when a person goes through a difficult or unpleasant experience to achieve a goal, resulting in a need to justify the effort invested

Post-decisional dissonance: Occurs after a decision has been made, causing discomfort about the potential negative aspects of the chosen option and the positive aspects of the rejected alternatives.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon, and its neural foundations include different areas and processes in the brain. While research into the neural mechanisms of cognitive dissonance continues, certain areas of the brain have been implicated in studies related to decision making, conflict resolution, and self-concept. It is important to note that the brain is a highly interconnected organ, and many cognitive processes involve the coordinated activity of multiple areas of the brain. Here are some areas of the brain that have been linked to cognitive dissonance:

Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC): The ACC is often involved in detecting conflicts between competing information or goals. It plays a crucial role in monitoring errors and signaling the need for adjustments. When cognitive dissonance is present, the ACC may be involved in identifying the conflict between conflicting beliefs or behaviors.

The biomechanics of cognitive dissonance: evidence from MRI research suggests that the greater the psychological conflict indicated by anterior belt buckling, the greater the cognitive dissonance experienced by the person [from Wikipedia]

Prefrontal cortex: The prefrontal cortex, especially the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), is involved in executive functions such as decision making, problem solving, and self-control. It may play a role in resolving cognitive dissonance by evaluating options and implementing strategies to reduce the inconsistency.

Amygdala: The amygdala is associated with emotional processing. Cognitive dissonance often involves an emotional component when people experience discomfort or stress. The amygdala may contribute to the emotional aspects of cognitive dissonance.

Striatum: The striatum is involved in reward processing and reinforcement learning. In situations where people need to justify their choices or behaviors to reduce cognitive dissonance, the striatum may play a role in processing the rewards or benefits associated with the chosen option.

Medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC): The medial prefrontal cortex is associated with self-referential processing and social cognition. Because cognitive dissonance often involves self-perception and the need to maintain a positive self-image, the medial prefrontal cortex may be involved in processes related to self-justification.

Insula: The insula is involved in processing interoceptive signals and is involved in the experience of emotions. This may contribute to subjective feelings of discomfort or tension associated with cognitive dissonance.

While cognitive dissonance is an established and accepted concept in psychology, like any scientific theory, it is not immune to criticism or debate. Most psychologists and researchers in the field accept the basic principles of the theory of cognitive dissonance proposed by Leon Festinger, but there may be differences in emphasis or interpretation.

Some researchers have expanded or modified the theory to address specific nuances or integrate it with other psychological frameworks. In addition, there are ongoing debates about the boundary conditions of cognitive dissonance, the role of cultural factors, and the extent to which cognitive dissonance can explain various phenomena.

Here are some key explanations and extensions:

Insufficient justification: Festinger proposed that when people engage in behavior that is inconsistent with their beliefs or attitudes, but do not have sufficient external justification for that behavior, they experience cognitive dissonance. To reduce this discomfort, they may change their beliefs to align with their behavior.

Selective exposure: This explanation suggests that people tend to seek information that supports their existing beliefs and avoid information that contradicts them. This is a way to minimize the potential for cognitive dissonance by avoiding situations that might challenge one's established attitudes.

Post-decision dissonance: Festinger and his colleagues proposed that after making a decision between two or more alternatives, people experience cognitive dissonance due to the viability of the rejected options. To reduce this discomfort, they enhance the perceived positive aspects of their chosen option and downplay the positive aspects of the rejected alternatives.

Effort justification: This explanation focuses on the discomfort that people feel when they invest significant effort or resources in a particular goal or activity that does not yield the expected result. To reduce dissonance, people may convince themselves that the effort was worthwhile, even if the outcome is not as expected.

Cultural and individual differences: Several researchers have investigated how cultural and individual factors may influence the experience of cognitive dissonance. Cultural norms, social context, and individual personality traits can shape how people respond to conflicting beliefs or behaviors.

Self-affirmation theory: This theory suggests that people strive to maintain a positive self-image. When they are faced with information or situations that challenge their self-concept, they experience cognitive dissonance. Self-affirmation involves focusing on and affirming one's positive qualities to reduce this discomfort.

Cognitive dissonance and decision-making: Researchers have examined how cognitive dissonance affects decision-making processes. For example, people may adjust their attitudes to match their choices to maintain consistency between their beliefs and actions.

The question arises as to how cognitive dissonance is created when one joins a group with severe norms and sanctions.

When a person joins a group with severe norms and sanctions—when the group has strict, extreme, or strict rules and enforces them with severe consequences—it can lead to the formation of cognitive dissonance in several ways. Cognitive dissonance in this context often results from the conflict between the individual's existing beliefs or values and the demands or norms imposed by the group. This is how cognitive dissonance can be created in such situations:

Inconsistency with previous beliefs:

◦ Trigger for cognitive dissonance: The individual may initially join a group with certain existing beliefs or values that conflict with the extreme norms of the group.

◦ Discomfort: The gap between the individual's original beliefs and the norms of the group can create cognitive dissonance, leading to discomfort or tension.

Pressure For Conformity:

◦ Trigger for cognitive dissonance: The individual may conform to group norms to avoid social rejection, gain acceptance, or reap other benefits associated with group membership.

◦ Discomfort: If the individual's original beliefs were contrary to group norms, conforming to the group may create cognitive dissonance as the individual struggles with the conflict between personal values and group expectations.

The justification of the group norms:

◦ Trigger for cognitive dissonance: To reduce discomfort, the individual may engage in cognitive processes to justify the extreme norms of the group.

◦ Reduction of discomfort: By convincing oneself that the norms of the group are justified or acceptable, the person reduces cognitive dissonance and aligns his beliefs with the expectations of the group.

Commitment and investment:

◦ Trigger for cognitive dissonance: As the individual invests more time, effort, or resources in the group, there may be an increased commitment to group norms.

◦ Discomfort: The more committed an individual becomes to a group, the greater the potential for cognitive dissonance if the group's norms conflict with the individual's original beliefs.

Self-concept and identity:

◦ Trigger for cognitive dissonance: membership in a group may affect an individual's self-concept and identity.

◦ Discomfort: If the individual's self-concept is inconsistent with the group's norms, cognitive dissonance may arise as they face the conflict between their sense of self and the group's expectations.

To deal with cognitive dissonance in these situations, people may go through various cognitive processes, such as changing their beliefs to align with the group, minimizing the importance of the conflicting beliefs, or seeking social support within the group to reinforce the chosen norms. The extent to which cognitive dissonance is experienced and resolved can depend on factors such as individual differences, the strength of group influence, and the perceived consequences of deviating from group norms.

We will continue and ask if someone with liberal beliefs lives in a dictatorial regime with harsh norms, is it possible to create cognitive dissonance?

The answer is positive. When a person with liberal beliefs lives in a dictatorial regime with rigid norms he can certainly experience cognitive dissonance. The clash between the liberal values of the individual and the authoritarian norms of the regime creates a situation of cognitive dissonance. This is how cognitive dissonance may manifest itself in such a scenario:

Conflict of values:

◦ Trigger for cognitive dissonance: the individual holds liberal values that emphasize concepts such as freedom, individual rights and democratic governance.

◦ Discomfort: Living in a dictatorial regime with repressive norms that violate liberal values creates conflict, leading to discomfort or tension.

Conformity and survival:

◦ Trigger for cognitive dissonance: the individual may feel pressure to conform to authoritative norms to avoid persecution, maintain personal security, or secure basic needs.

◦ Discomfort: conforming to values that contradict one's liberal beliefs can create cognitive dissonance as one navigates the tension between survival instincts and the desire to adhere to liberal principles.

Justification and Rationalization:

◦ Trigger for cognitive dissonance: To reduce discomfort, the individual may engage in cognitive processes to justify or excuse his adherence to regime norms.

◦ Reduction of discomfort: Self-conviction that authoritative norms are justified or necessary may serve to alleviate cognitive dissonance by aligning personal beliefs with prevailing conditions.


◦ Trigger for cognitive dissonance: the individual may compartmentalize his beliefs and separate his liberal values from his external conformity to authoritarian norms.

◦ Reducing Discomfort: By mentally separating these aspects of one's life, the person may reduce cognitive dissonance by creating a cognitive "buffer" between conflicting beliefs.

risk aversion:

◦ Trigger for cognitive dissonance: the fear of consequences, such as persecution or harm, for expressing liberal beliefs may lead to suppression of these beliefs.

◦ Discomfort: The internal conflict resulting from suppressing one's authentic beliefs can create cognitive dissonance.

Looking for subtle resistance or issues:

◦ Trigger for cognitive dissonance: the individual may engage in subtle acts of resistance or seek ways to express their liberal beliefs, even if privately or with trusted people.

◦ Reducing Discomfort: These actions may serve as a way to manage cognitive dissonance by allowing the individual to maintain contact with their liberal values.

In such situations, individuals may use different cognitive and behavioral strategies to cope with the conflicting demands of their personal beliefs and the oppressive norms of the regime. The specific strategies adopted can vary widely based on individual differences, the severity of the regime, and the perceived risks associated with expressing dissenting views.

In this context, it is interesting to find examples from history of the existence of cognitive dissonance:

We will first start with examples from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire and move on to historical events closer to our time:

The Roman Empire:

1. Fax Romana and military occupation:

◦ The Roman Empire, during the Pax Romana period, promoted the idea of peace and stability. However, this went hand in hand with the ongoing military occupations to expand and maintain control. Roman citizens may have experienced cognitive dissonance when they embraced the idea of peace while being aware of the relentless military system.

2. Slavery and Republican values:

◦ In the Roman Republic, the idea of civic morality and the rights of citizens were highly valued. However, the widespread use of slaves to perform labor contradicted these ideals. The Romans may have experienced cognitive dissonance when they espoused the virtues of citizenship while relying on slave labor for economic prosperity.

3. Julius Caesar's rise to power:

◦ Julius Caesar's supporters faced cognitive dissonance as they witnessed the erosion of the democratic institutions of the Roman Republic. Many Romans valued the republic and its traditions, but some supported Caesar's centralization of power. This dissonance is resolved by justifying Caesar's actions as necessary for stability and the common good.

Ancient Greece:

1. Democracy and Athenian exclusion:

◦ Ancient Athens is often praised for its democratic ideals, but this coexisted with the exclusion of women, slaves, and non-citizens from political participation. It is possible that the citizens of Athens experienced cognitive dissonance between the democratic principles they supported and the limitations imposed on certain groups in society.

2. Philosophers and slavery:

◦ Greek philosophers, known for their intellectual contributions, lived in societies where slavery was widespread. Philosophers like Aristotle, who pondered ethical principles and the nature of humanity, might have faced cognitive dissonance by not challenging the institution of slavery more explicitly.

3. Spartan society and the Lotes:

◦ Spartan society, with its emphasis on military prowess and discipline, rested on a class of people known as the Lotes who were essentially enslaved. The Spartans may have experienced a cognitive dissonance between their ideals of honor and valor and the subjugation of the helots for the benefit of the Spartan state.

4. Pericles' funeral speech:

◦ Pericles, in his famous funeral speech during the Peloponnesian War, praised Athenian democracy and its values. However, the realities of war and the actions of the empire may have created cognitive dissonance among the Athenians who had to reconcile their democratic ideals with the harsh realities of conflict and imperialist behavior.

Thus in both Roman and Greek society, individuals grappled with conflicting beliefs and values, and their attempts to resolve cognitive dissonance often shaped the course of their civilizations. The examples highlight the universal nature of cognitive dissonance in different historical and cultural contexts.

Below are historical examples of cognitive dissonance from recent centuries.

Colonialism and moral justification:

◦ During the era of European colonialism, colonialists often faced cognitive dissonance between their own moral values and the exploitation of indigenous populations. To justify their actions, colonizers may convince themselves that they are bringing civilization and progress to "backward" societies, thereby reducing the discomfort associated with moral inconsistency.

Slavery and cognitive dissonance:

◦ Slave owners in the United States faced significant cognitive dissonance when they held a belief in individual freedom and equality while simultaneously owning slaves. To resolve this conflict, some slave owners developed ideologies that dehumanized slaves or convinced themselves that they were providing a "benevolent" form of guidance and protection.

World War II and the horrors:

◦ Soldiers and officials who were involved in war crimes during World War II faced a cognitive dissonance between their moral values and the actions they committed. To cope, individuals may dehumanize the enemy, justify their actions as necessary for the greater good, or deny the seriousness of their actions.

The Cold War and ideological justifications:

◦ During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in actions that contradicted their stated ideologies. For example, the US, which championed freedom and democracy, supported authoritarian regimes in the name of anti-communism. This inconsistency led to cognitive dissonance, which was often resolved by emphasizing the greater threat of communism.

The Vietnam War and public perception:

◦ The Vietnam War created cognitive dissonance for many Americans who believed in the principles of freedom and democracy. As the evidence of the horrors and the true cost of the war became clear, there were people who had to face the contradiction between their values and the actions of their government. This dissonance contributed to the anti-war movement.

Apartheid in South Africa:

◦ Advocates of apartheid in South Africa faced cognitive dissonance as they tried to reconcile the system of racial segregation with ideas of equality and human rights. Some justified apartheid by promoting ideas of cultural superiority or claimed that it was necessary to maintain order and economic stability.

These historical examples demonstrate how cognitive dissonance has played a role in shaping beliefs, justifications, and actions at both the individual and societal levels. In each case, people were confronted with conflicting beliefs and sought ways to resolve the resulting psychological discomfort.

We will once again remind those of you who have not gone through the previous chapters and talks that in the model we propose for the "self", one must first differentiate between the primary self, which is actually the basic biological nucleus consisting of a number of innate structures and which is subject to development during life. and the "social self" [consisting of "secondary selves"], which is a structure that develops during a person's exposure to social influence, and consists of internalizations of figures significant to a person, originating either from external groups or from imaginary groups (related, for example, in the form of a story, from a myth, from a movie, etc.) that were having a considerable effect on the person). We will note here that at birth there are innate patterns for most parts of the self such as the "social self" and its parts that form nuclei for a possible future development of these structures.

The "secondary selves" included in the "social self" include 1] the variety of representations of the "Me" that originate from attitudes and feelings towards the self and its representations in different periods of life 2] the representations of internalized figures that often originate from significant figures that the person is exposed to during his life but as mentioned may also be imaginary characters represented in books, films, etc. that have had a considerable influence on man. 3] The person’s representations of the "subculture" [subculture refers to social influences in the milieu [environment] in which the person lives and are not necessarily related to a specific person].

We call the social self metaphorically the "directorate of characters" or more specifically the "directorate of internalized characters."

We note that, as we mentioned before, in this board there is usually a hierarchy in which there are more influential and dominant figures that we metaphorically called "Dictator Self or Selves" and these set the tone and even censor what content, attitudes and behaviors cannot be contained in the board of figures. We note that the person as a whole is not aware of the influence of the board of characters and recognizes the influence as coming from himself and his own will and attitudes.

We will also note that, as a rule, the board of directors is very dynamic and there are constant struggles and power relations between the internalized characters that make it up on the positions that will be expressed when the internal dictator or dictators dictate the tone.

Cognitive dissonance and the directorate of internalized characters:

We suggest that at least some of the cognitive dissonance situations can be explained by the theoretical background summarized above.

Let's take for example a person who believes in equality for all and civil rights including freedom of speech, who lives in a tyrannical regime that suppresses civil rights and cultivates a ruling class. That is, here there is a large group [the dictatorial state] whose values and laws are contrary to the attitudes of the internalized group [that builds its social self] within this specific individual. In this case, the individual complies with the laws of the country, otherwise he’ll be severely persecuted, since in this situation there are usually very severe sanctions for those who disobey the regime's laws and regulations. Here the individual experiences cognitive dissonance, one of the solutions of which is the gradual adoption of the positions of the dictatorial regime.

What actually happens here is that the representatives of the large group [the state in this case] are internalized by the individual and take over the smaller group "the board of internalized figures" and a new dictator self is created expressing the values of the state that pushes away the previous dictator self.

This often happens also in sects with strict rules and a charismatic leader who dictates strict rules of obedience with severe sanctions for those who deviate from them.

There may also be another possibility where extraordinary external circumstances [traumatic for example] require behavior that is not acceptable by the dictator self under normal circumstances, behavior whose purpose is survival and life preservation. Here a figure or several figures in the internalized board advocating the necessary behavior will rise in the hierarchy and reduce the influence of the internalized dictator self in order to reduce the cognitive dissonance and prepare for a change in the attitudes and behavior that the individual will express.

We’d like to mention that the mechanism being involved here will be in most cases associated with the activation of the Thread and Attachment Sensitivity Channels (see our previous blog about the Sensitivity Channels).

That is, one possibility is a conflict between the individual's attitudes [expressed by the influential figures in his board of internalized figures] and the positions of a large group, whether a sect or a state with strict sanctions and the like, and a second possibility is a situation [for example survival] that requires behavior that is not acceptable in normal times.

That's all for now,


Dr. Igor Salganik and Prof. Joseph Levine

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