Cognitive Dissonance

At times, one may find themselves in a position of mental discomfort or psychological stress due to being in a conflict between what one believes or when new information is presented with what one does or is doing.

This real psychological discomfort, which can translate into physical anxiety, was first proposed as the theory of cognitive dissonance by psychologist Leon Festinger.

To counteract this discomfort, one must find a way to resolve this new piece of information with ones action in order to restore the balance and comfort the mind needs in order to function properly again.

Cognitive dissonance is when one is faced with some new form of evidence or a thought that conflicts with another belief or previously held thought.  A common example given is that of a smoker, where there is information to suggest that smoking is unhealthy, and the evidence that has mounted to support that evidence, yet the individual continues to smoke.  And in doing so, they need to deal with this information to justify their actions because the conflict – that of the information they have as opposed to their behavior – brings about physical pain

The conditions needed to fulfill the requirement that fits cognitive dissonance, is that firstly they have a choice to make and the freedom to make it.   That is, cognitive dissonance does not apply to situations where one is forced into a position – such as writing a paper arguing a point of view that they disagree with for an exam topic where they will otherwise fail.

The second condition is that there are negative consequences if no action is taken to resolve the issue.

In the case of the smoker, they have the choice to stop smoking because they have now become aware of the dangers of smoking.  Or, they justify their behavior to continue to smoke through other means to resolve this conflict.

The ways, therefore, in which this conflict can be dealt with, are the following four ways:


  1. Change the incoming new information: That is to say that the new evidence and information presented is not true, and that, for example, smoking is completely safe.   This conflicts with evidence or new information presented but, in the mind of the person who is experiencing cognitive dissonance, has resolved the issue.


  1. Change your course of action to suit the new information: This would be the most sensible course of action.  After conducting a through research and confirming the new information at hand, to implement an action, and therefore change the behavior in order to be able to seek best outcomes.  In the example of the smoker – take actions to quit smoking.


  1. Add a new thought to justify ongoing action: Here, the person in conflict will compensate to justify continuing their behavior. For example, I do “this” to compensate for the errors of my ways.  A smoker, therefore, may be convinced of the new evidence that smoking harms the body, but will resolve the conflict by eating healthy foods, going to the gym, etc in order to continue and compensate for the consumption of cigarettes.


  1. Trivialise the matter: Finally, one can trivialise the new information as unimportant and insignificant, looking for supportive beliefs contrary to the evidence to soothe the conflict.  The smoker will look towards information that disputes the link between smoking and lung cancer, for example, or cite Syed Khoei, famously known to be a chain smoker who lived to over 90 years of age, as evidence that smoking does not short the life of an individual.

With that in mind, we can change the example given from that of a smoker who needs to justify their behavior, to an individual who is living in an environment that is restricting their religious activities, affecting their theological beliefs, and choking their spiritual growth.

Either their own spiritual growth, faith and activities, or, that of their family and children.

With some of the information presented already, the reader may be experiencing some of this so-called cognitive dissonance.  A feeling of discomfort, and the need to either act upon it or, to justify where they are and what they do because they are simply comfortable and established in the environment they are in.

According to the possibilities listed earlier to overcome this dissonance, this individual will now make the following choices:


  1. Change the incoming new information: The reader will overcome this information by formulating thoughts such as this information doe not apply to our modern times and applies only to days gone by; does not apply to myself and similar.


  1. Change your course of action to suit the new information: That is, where possible, migrate, and if not possible, compensate proactively until one can migrate.


  1. Add a new thought to justify ongoing action: Where one can make the move to migrate, they choose to take the path to compensate instead.  And this can be a fine line between someone who can make the choice to migrate and does not by justifying against it and someone who has legitimate reasons, such as persecution, if they were to move anywhere else.


  1. Trivialise the matter: That the world has become a small global community and it does not matter where we live now; that the interpretation of this information must be incorrect – and they will search for information that supports their own view and decisions.


Of course, while this is a theory and is one that is presented to us by the modern world of Psychology, it is not completely alien to Truth that is revealed to us in the Holy Qur’an.  In the Holy Qur’an, as an example, Allah Al Mighty cautions us:

[su_pullquote align=”right”]فَأَمَّا مَنْ طَغَى٣٧ وَآثَرَ الْحَيَاةَ الدُّنْيَا٣٨ فَإِنَّ الْجَحِيمَ هِيَ الْمَأْوَى٣٩ وَأَمَّا مَنْ خَافَ مَقَامَ رَبِّهِ وَنَهَى النَّفْسَ عَنِ الْهَوَى٤٠ فَإِنَّ الْجَنَّةَ هِيَ الْمَأْوَى٤١ [/su_pullquote]

Then as for him who was insolent and preferred the present life, surely Hell shall be the refuge. But as for him who feared the Station of his Lord and forbade the soul its caprice, surely Paradise shall be the refuge. (An-Naziat 79:37-41)

Cognitive dissonance and migration

It must be emphasised that this cognitive dissonance is applies to where there is a choice to make, and not in situations where migrants are forced to flee for their lives.

An example of the presence of a tyrant ruler where a minority is persecuted and so some are forced to flee.  Now the question becomes, where should one escape to?

And in the continuation of the above example, after some time, the tyrant is over turned and the excuse to flee is lifted.  So a choice is there to be made.

One can choose to study this information and act upon it, or justify a “choice” to ignore it and act contrary to their duty.  Either way, that choice will have a consequence.

Ultimately, the choice one makes needs to be based on a leap of faith.  And that can only come with support from the Al-Mighty, for the heart that is full of faith will have no hesitation in making the right decision.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَتَطْمَئِنُّ قُلُوبُهُمْ بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ  أَلَا بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ٢٨[/su_pullquote]

Those who believe, their hearts being at rest in God’s remembrance — in God’s remembrance are at rest the hearts. (Ar-Ra’d 13:28).

There are also many Ayahs as well as plenty of narrations that points to dilemmas and how to best resolve them, a discussion that requires more time and resources than permits at this point and for this subject.