Smart Thinking

Cognitive Dissonance and Sour Grapes

Recognising Cognitive Dissonance and why it’s easier to make excuses than make difficult changes.

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE and the inconsistency of belief and action.

Cognitive Dissonance

Figure 1 – Bad diets – A modern example of Cognitive Dissonance

Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity

Anti Pattern Name: Cognitive Dissonance

A classical illustration of cognitive dissonance is expressed in the fable The Fox and the Grapes by Aesop (ca. 620–564 BCE). In the story, a fox sees some high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When the fox is unable to think of a way to reach them, he decides that the grapes are probably not worth eating, with the justification the grapes probably are not ripe or that they are sour (hence “sour grapes“). This example follows a pattern: one desires something, finds it unattainable, and reduces one’s dissonance by criticizing it. Jon Elster calls this pattern “adaptive preference formation.” [source, Wikipedia]

Type: Behavioural

Problem: Cognitive Dissonance is a term associated with psychologist Leon Festinger. It describes a state of mind where our actions are not consistent with our beliefs.

Context: Why is there sometimes a gap between ‘what we think’ and ‘what we do’? Puzzling irrational and even destructive behaviour can ensue.

Forces: Criticism of what is personally unattainable to reduce dissonance, inconsistency of action and belief, following the crowd, expediency, apathy.

Resulting Context: The danger of Cognitive Dissonance is that is is much easier to make excuses than make changes. This leads people to self-justification and a search for arguments that reinforce their viewpoint. Bad decisions are the likely result as well as denigration of creative approaches that would yield higher long term benefit. In the example from Aesop, the fox never found out if the grapes were ripe or not.

Solution(s): Either change your Attitude or Change your Behaviour. In the example in Figure 1, a state of Consistency is reached when there is a shift in Attitude to recognise the motivation for junk food consumption. A better outcome would be a behavioural shift towards diet change.

Lateral Thinking: An Introduction

Further Reading on Lateral Thinking and Creative Thinking

By Steve Nimmons

Steve is a Certified European Engineer, Chartered Engineer, Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, Royal Society of Arts, Linnean Society and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He is an Electric Circle Patron of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, a Liveryman and Freeman of London and serves on numerous industry panels. He is a member of Chatham House, the Royal United Services Institute and the Chartered Institute of Journalists.