Demonetisation, Dettol and Post Truth: The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

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According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, if an experience that costs effort turns out badly, people redefine the experience as interesting or rewarding.


During the Korean War, Chinese captors employed a devious ploy to brainwash American prisoners of war. The POWs were offered small things like a candy or a bowl of rice in exchange for writing pro-Chinese essays. Some of these prisoners soon started to believe what they wrote, and converted to communism.

Apparently, the technique worked because they did not want to believe that they had sold their soul for something small and insignificant. Had the reward been anything substantial, the tactic would have failed.

This is one instance of cognitive dissonance at work. The theory of cognitive dissonance, advanced by Leon Festinger, suggests that we have an inner drive to hold our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid dissonance. To maintain cognitive consistency, people often willingly suspend disbelief and resort to irrational behavior.

In an experiment, Festinger paid a group of subjects 20 dollars to tell a lie, and another group one dollar to do the same. Those who were paid one dollar actually believed in the lie they were told to tell. The reason? Same as above. They simply did not want to believe that they would lie for such a small amount.

Somebody once said that student politics is vicious because the stakes are low. It’s easy to understand why. A seasoned politician has a lot at stake – power, position and riches. A student politician, on the other hand, has none. That’s when you steadfastly hold on to your beliefs, and are willing to go to any extend to defend them.

According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, if an experience that costs effort turns out badly, people redefine the experience as interesting or rewarding.

Take the recent demonetization move. By any measure the move was stupid and foolish, disastrous for the economy, and had shifting goal posts for objectives. However, as election results showed, it paid rich dividends for the decision maker. (That, or the Martians took control of the EVMs.)

A lot of people had to stand in queue for long hours in the sun. What would they rather believe – that they have been conned into taking part in a pointless exercise? Or that the minor inconvenience is a small sacrifice for the nation?  (I am not trivializing the hardship people went through, but compared to other calamities that the population has to face – draughts, riots, a Justine Bieber concert, etc. – standing in line for half a day is small beer.)

Cognitive dissonance is all too evident in advertising and marketing, too. Ad man Jerry Della Femina, in his memoir From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor recalls an insightful incident. He had a client who was a manufacturer of an antiseptic solution that gave a burning sensation when applied on wounds. The R&D dept., after a lot of effort, managed to take the sting out. However, the reengineered product saw the sales fall. Customers expected the solution to sting, and rationalized it by assuming that the burn is the price one pays for healing. With the sting gone, they felt the product was not working. According to Della Femina, the improved product was quickly withdrawn, and the old version reintroduced, and the sales picked up again. This is the reason Dettol will always outsell Savlon. (Though Savlon will have a niche market of its own.)

Cognitive dissonance is also the reason people seldom change their political positions. As Festinger theorized, when the mind is presented with evidence that contradicts strongly held beliefs, it acquires or invents new information in order to justify the belief. Ever seen a Modi or a Trump supporter change his views when confronted with a mountain of evidence against them? Or for that matter, a Patanjali loyalist switch brands because Patanjali products have failed quality tests? In all likelihood, she will defend Patanjali fiercely, dismissing the test results as an intergalactic conspiracy by the liberal intelligentsia to discredit the great Indian culture, values and heritage.

Truth is, we have always been living in the post-truth world. 

Chief Creative Officer
Out Of The Box, India