Steve Black says:
>>I am not sure this model really does much for us. It might be helpful on a
personal level in sorting out personal motivations in attempting to achieve
greater personal honesty intellectually. It might provide a window into why
some scholars *might* reject and affirm what they do. But it certainly
doesn't provide any thing that will help us actually evaluate any given
Actually, I can also see its practical application in the study of the
psychological aspects that might have driven the progression of historical
events. For instance, it has been used to illuminate the process of
reinterpretation of prophesies in Jewish scriptures (_When Prophecy Failed:
Cognitive Dissonance in the Prophetic Traditions of the Old Testament_, by
Robert P. Carroll, Seabury Press, 1979, no review located; "Ancient
Israelite Prophecy and Dissonance Theory," Robert P. Carroll in _Theology
and Sociology : a Reader_, edited by Robin Gill, Cassell, 1996_, pp.
238-253; "Christian Missions and the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance" John G.
Gager, ibid, 276-292).
While Carroll applied it to prophetic literature proper, I can see it
employed in the analysis of the psychological motivations for mass religious
re-identifications, such as appears to have happened in the time of the
Maccabee rebellion against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and that which occurred
again within Judaism, including early Christianity, after the destruction of
the Temple and defeat of the Jewish rebellion between 66-73 CE. Grad
students looking for a dissertation subject might want to take note that
such concepts are wide open for future research.
>>Cognitive Dissonance can be generated by faulty (or at least questionable)
ideas as well as by sound ones. As Peter Berger said, 'imaginary sticks can
draw real blood'. An emotional reaction may tell us about
social/intellectual location, but it will tell us nothing about factuality
Cognitive Dissonance is generally studied from the point of view of a
subject *after* s/he has made a decision between alternative views (either
as a practical necessity, or due to the acceptance of a doctrinal system, or
due to imposition by authority figures). It is true, though, that the truth
value of the available choices is irrelevant to the issue of what behaviors
are employed to reduce the resulting dissonance.
>>An example ... I might experience Cognitive Dissonance when I hear about
alien abductions, the shroud of Turin, out of body experiences, and so
forth. My reaction doesn't say anything about the reality or non-reality of
any of these. To say something regarding that, I will need *arguments*. Why
I draw the arguments that I do might (or might not) reflect an attempt to
deal with Cognitive Dissonance, but that still says nothing about the actual
But for most people accounts of alien abductions or the existence of the
shroud would not cause much in the way of dissonance. First of all, most
people do not feel compelled to choose alien abductions in opposition to
less extreme alternative explanations (astrophysical or psychological,
etc.). Now if you woke up one morning and had the unshakable feeling you had
been abducted, that would cause dissonance because the previous explanatory
complexes that might have mitigated against choosing an abduction hypothesis
might seem insufficient to explain a personal experience. It has become
*personal* and hence emotionally charged.
>>other example ... I suspect that NT Wright comes to his conclusions
because of theological commitments - that he suppresses what is essentially
Cognitive Dissonance to achieve his construction. Now if this is true (and
it may not be - it is merely my hunch) it still doesn't say anything about
what he says. The only relevant question is if he makes a good case or not.
Because he never says anything like "this is true because I want it to be" -
but proceeds upon evidence and interpretation, we can now look at his work
and judge whether he has made his case or not. His motivations might be
interesting, but hardly significant to our "verdict".
So it seems to me that the Cognitive Dissonance model might help us achieve
better honesty, but beyond that, I am not sure it has much more to offer.<<
Now you are talking. If we believe the biblical accounts are "true" but also
know that the everyday world casts doubt in the miraculous world the bible
is steeped in, we *should* experience dissonance. The difference between N.
T. Wright and a snake-handling fundamentalist of the Appalachian mountains
is that N. T. Wright has developed many relatively sophisticated, and
essentially rational, approaches in order to reconcile his complexes of
belief and those related to his acceptance of historical-critical method.
But I am more concerned with examining the means by which dissonance can be
reduced. Because they are essentially practical solutions, they can have a
distinctly Machiavellian aura about them. Approaches can range from very
reasoned to very knee-jerk or reactionary. For example, the theory predicts
that forced or accidental exposure to new information that tends to increase
dissonance will frequently result in *misinterpretation and misperception of
the new information* by the person thus exposed *in an effort to avoid
dissonance increase*. This is *serious business* if employed by a
professional critic or anyone who professes to employ the
historical-critical method. My opinion on this matter is that such
misrepresentation or misperception is more likely to occur in an emotionally
charged atmosphere than a rationally charged atmosphere.
Also, dissonance introduced by disagreement expressed by other persons may
be reduced by changing one's own opinion, or by influencing the others to
change their opinion, and by rejecting those who disagree. The first option
could be applicable if the alternative position proves persuasive, but also
if the compliance is induced. The second option can be as innocuous as
presenting a reasoned response, to as reactionary as immediately raising a
rallying cry against the opposing position. The third option is also
problematic, especially if the disagreeing opinion contradicts some sort of
consensus, since immediate marginalization of the proponent of the new
opinion arbitrarily cuts off criticism at the knees.
If anyone remembers it, A. Powell Davies provided some very interesting
observations on the early DSS controversies, including the sometimes
bitterly intense opposition to them on many grounds and the generally
extreme rejections of suggestions for their interpretation that went against
the hitherto prevailing consensus regarding the nature and theology of
Judaism around the turn of the Christian era (_The Meaning of the Dead Sea
Scrolls_, 1956, Mentor Books paperback).
It goes the other way as well. Galileo had one heck of a problem bucking the
consensus, but partly because he refused good advice to publish his theories
as hypotheses rather than matters of fact, and when forced to do so (on the
advice of his friend, the Pope) he did so by publishing his theory using a
fictive dialogue, in which the other party was a sarcastic parody of the
Pope as the embodiment of irrational dogmatism (who was not that way at all
in real life, and who henceforth refused to speak to Galileo after officers
of the Inquisition informed him of the parody).
Having chosen the Copernican model, which appealed to him on account of
reason, Galileo would have been experiencing dissonance since many of his
contemporaries, who he needed to interact with everyday but who were not
ready to let empirical evidence overrule accepted dogma, were quite opposed
to this kind of idea. While many of his astronomical ideas were quite right,
Galileo let his emotions rule the means he chose to propagate his theory,
and forced his opponents to react in an equally emotional manner, thus
guaranteeing his condemnation by the Inquisition.
The theory states that the effectiveness of efforts to reduce dissonance
will depend upon the resistance to change of the cognitive elements involved
in the dissonance and on the availability of information which will provide,
or of other persons who will supply, new cognitive elements which will be
consonant with existing cognition. Yet it is also proposed that the presence
of dissonance can lead to seeking of new information which will provide
cognition consonant with existing cognitive elements as well as to avoiding
those sources of new information which would be likely to increase the
Since the major sources of resistance to change for a cognitive element are
the responsiveness of such cognitive elements to "reality," as well as the
extent to which an element exists in consonant relations with many other
elements, it seems to me that the best way to approach new theories and
hypotheses is to emphasize the free availability of a variety of reasoned
opinions on any one topic. This is because the maximum dissonance which can
exist between two elements is equal to the resistance to change of the less
resistant of the two elements, the less resistant cognitive element will be
changed in order to reduce the dissonance when the dissonance exceeds this
magnitude. In time, the more reasonable opinions will tend to be adopted.
However, toleration of reactionary and knee-jerk evaluations of these new
ideas, not matter how authoritative the evaluator may otherwise be, is
counter-productive and actually dangerous to progress in any particular
field. It is not enough to assert that it is the logical fallacy of "Ad
Hominem Tu Quoque" to reject an opinion on these kinds of grounds alone. It
may be true that inaccurate or inconsistent opinions expressed by a
proponent of an idea do not invalidate the idea, it is not true that we
*have* to accept all ideas as of equal value. Is anyone here ready to place
J D Crossan or N T Wright on the same level as a Christian fundamentalist
apologist or a new age channeling theory proponent?
In summary, I would assert that an understanding of Cognitive Dissonance and
the ways that individuals or groups attempt to reduce dissonance can and
will help us be better critics, both in the way we look at historical
processes as well as how we evaluate the actions and reactions of critics
(including ourselves) in relation to the critical work they or we express.
I am aware of a more recent book on the subject of CD that should bring the
theory up to date for those interested: _Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a
Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology_ (Science Conference Series) by Eddie
Harmon-Jones (Editor), Judson Mills (Editor) (Hardcover, March 1999).
Cleveland, Ohio, USA