Cognitive Resistance

Michael Metzger

Suppose you believe something with your whole heart. Suppose you are presented with evidence that your belief is wrong. What’s likely to happen?

Most people assume they’d change. Not so, said Leon Festinger who posed this question in his landmark study of what he called “cognitive dissonance.” Festinger’s findings tell us why change is so hard. There is a way to change behavior. It’s practiced by many companies including Pixar and by two-thirds of the worldwide church.

Leon Festinger first published his research in 1957 in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. His theory explained how people were capable of believing one thing despite evidence to the contrary. Festinger argued that people naturally seek to maintain consistency in their beliefs. So when facts or evidence come along disturbing their settled assumptions, a state of cognitive dissonance occurs. That should be a good thing—but it often isn’t.

It turns out there’s a dark side to dissonance. Many times a set of mechanisms—or triggers—seek to bring consistency back to a person’s thinking by distorting or ignoring reality. Festinger first noticed this tendency in religious groups. When deeply held beliefs come into conflict with reality, religious groups tend to develop explanations that reframe reality to fit their beliefs, rather than vice versa. Festinger cited the Millerites as one example of cognitive dissonance gone awry.

The Millerites were a millenarian religious sect that believed Jesus Christ would return to earth on October 22, 1844. Well, that didn’t happen. But rather than abandon their faith, many Millerites constructed elaborate rationalizations to justify their belief, arguing that Christ had returned spiritually, or that the event had occurred in Heaven, if not on earth. This is a case of cognitive dissonance becoming cognitive resistance to reality, as Festinger noted in another book, When Prophecy Fails:

Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart…suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting people to his view.1

Deep devotion can push cognitive dissonance in the wrong direction. Rather than experiencing dissonance as a positive push to change, Festinger observed that “true believers” go deeper into their faith in order to blunt the threat of disconfirmation. This reality extends beyond religion to all sorts of professions, including the field of economics. Many economists devoted to their theories ignored a great deal of contrarian data leading up the Great Recession of 2008. Philip Mirowski, a Carl Koch Professor of Economic and the History of Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame writes, “Philosophy of science revels in the ways in which it may be rational to discount contrary evidence, but the social psychology of cognitive dissonance reveals just how elastic the concept of rationality can be in social life.”2

There is a way to make cognitive dissonance a constructive experience. In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath argue that change is more a matter of behavior than mindset. The Heaths say many leaders mistakenly assume change is rational and that it happens in this order: analyze-think-change. Wrong. The real sequence of change is experience-feel-change. It’s a matter of experiencing small disruptions. “For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently.”3 Cognitive dissonance is constructive in cultures where workers routinely experience little disruptions. That’s the work of contrarians or crap detectors in company leadership.

Pixar has enculturated a crap detecting culture at Disney. The Economist writes that Pixar has reinvigorated Disney by fostering a sense of collective responsibility that is adept at receiving constructive criticism. It started by establishing a culture that includes a system of constant feedback where, after each film is completed, “Pixar demands that each review identify at least five things that did not go well in the film, as well as five that did.”4 Company leaders routinely experience disruption so that when some significant data debunks their assumptions, cognitive resistance doesn’t occur.

In the church, crap detectors are called prophets. They disrupt taken-for-granted assumptions, as can the Eucharist, which is what two-thirds of the worldwide church practices week in and week out. “Take and eat” is an experience of the deepest disruption of the created order: out of death comes life. This cognitive dissonance is constructive since communion, if practiced frequently enough, deepens devotion while reminding us of our depravity. It lowers cognitive resistance when presented with evidence that an assumption (such as an Enlightenment approach of analyze-think-change) might be wrong. Churches with established cultures that include a prophetic voice and a regular experience of the Eucharist are more likely to push cognitive dissonance in the right direction.

Cognitive dissonance is critical since coming to faith is only the beginning of becoming undeceived. Faith communities exist to deepen belief but also to create experiences of cognitive dissonance. That way, fervor is held in tension with our fallenness. Otherwise, faith communities are likely to reframe reality to fit their beliefs when they discover that some of their strategies to change the world might be incorrect.

1 Leon Festinger, et al., When Prophecy Fails (University of Minnesota Press, 1956), 3.
2 Philip Mirowski, “The Great Mortification: Economists’ response to the Crisis of 2007-(and counting)” The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2010, Vol. Twelve, Number Two, 35.
3 Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (Broadway Books, 2010), 4.
4 “Planning for the Sequel,” The Economist, June 19, 2010, 73.


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  1. Mike,

    This may be an obvious implicity in your argument, but does not the Eucharist stand as the ultimate evidence against the Enlightenment approach to change? “Take and eat” implies a liturgy that is enacted in the practical before it is understood in the theoretical, and really will not be understood fully until we experience the resurrection firsthand.

  2. Kyle:

    Yes indeed. “Take and eat” is found in all four “chapters” of the gospel (creation, fall, redemption, restoration) and reflects the deepest reality of the created order: life comes out of death. But it is best experienced before being explained.

  3. Analyze-think-change is not an Endarkenment approach, but the Judaeo-Christian one, though it also can be found among the Greeks. It is simply how reality -is-.

    Where are you trying to go with this? Are you making an ontological claim about the truth or fictionality of the Faith? Or are you arguing that reason alone is insufficient to change the beliefs of many people?

    As to life coming out of death, where are you trying to go with that? It certainly isn’t creational, as death is not.

  4. Mike,

    Once again, great piece! One question… When something is done over and over it can become unconsidered, mindless and even bodiless. We stop caring for what we are both thinking and doing. One of the obvious challenges in taking the Eucharist every week is that it can simply become a religious routine or duty (what, perhaps,two-thirds of the two-thirds are actually doing) How do we keep the Eucharist imbued with meaning lest experiential dissonance play out around the table?

  5. Joey:

    Bad example makes bad law. Anything and everything is susceptible to corruption. But the fact that corruption is possible is never an argument against proper practice. Saying “I love you” to your spouse can become rote. The solution however is not telling her you love her. Keeping the Eucharist in it’s proper place is simply a matter of a proper understanding of the gospel as it pertains to human nature.


    I’m not sure what an “Endarkment” approach means, so I can’t comment on your post. As for life coming out of death, it is indeed creational. God takes the disorder (formless and void) and orders it (life).

  6. So what happens when faith communities continue to “reframe reality to fit their beliefs” over and over? (And don’t seem to demonstrate the humility needed to listen and change?)

    Clearly you don’t want to throw in the towel, but that desire gets stronger and stronger…

  7. Brody:

    It is a conundrum, isn’t it? The solution in times past was enculturating yourself in a roundtable where you became habituated in self-suspicion. The conundrum of conscience is that individuals most easily delude themselves.

    Think of the conundrum this way: It’s like trying to win a marathon. If you wait until the day of the event, it’s way too late to win. In the same way, when American faith communities enculturate themselves in an individualistic, pietistic that prizes autonomy and certainty, there is no way a moment of dissonance will break through and achieve a positive result. At that point, it’s way too late in the game. We reap what we sow.

  8. I cannot tell you how many times I have experienced this tendency in Christians. I had a pastor whom I still respect very much try to justify the different number of angels at the resurection tomb in the different gospels by saying “Just because one gospel only mentions one angel at the tomb doesn’t mean there wasn’t more there …” Just one quick example.

  9. “As for life coming out of death, it is indeed creational. God takes the disorder (formless and void) and orders it (life).”

    Mike, the “formless and void” condition in which the earth was originally created was not one of “death”. It was simply in raw form yet “good” like all that God made. Death actually came into creation and destroyed life.

  10. “As for life coming out of death, it is indeed creational. God takes the disorder (formless and void) and orders it (life).”

    Mike, the formless and void condition of the newly created earth was not one of death, but earth in its raw form before God filled it. Death actually came after life.

  11. Tim:

    “Formless and void” has generally been understood to refer to judgement and disorder – the result of a pre-creation fall (the war between Lucifer and God). When Lucifer and his host lost, they were separated (the meaning of “death) and cast to earth. Hence, death and disorder are resident, if not completely manifest, in Genesis 1:1. From this disorder, God begins to order. Out of death comes life. This is the deepest reality of the created order.

  12. Mike,

    I have enjoyed your article on cognitive dissonance because I have experienced it first hand. We are told in Proverbs to get wisdom and understanding and don’t let them go. When you believe something to be the truth it is very difficult to change even when what you believe doesn’t seem to come to pass. Then you battle having faith to believe while you wait for what you believe to come to pass. There is a fine line that has to be walked out with God and definitely experience is necessary to see change take place. At least this has been my experience over the past ten years.

  13. Mike,
    I believe that understanding “formless and void” as being a state of “judgment and disorder” is reading into the text something that is just not there. I wonder who generally understands this and for what reason.
    If indeed there had been a “fall” prior to creation, which I do not believe was the case nor do the Scriptures suggest this notion, then God would not have been warranted to declare at the close of the sixth day of creation that everything was “very good” (perfect) for it was not.
    Moses used the word we translate as “formless” one other time and there it refers to the waste of a wilderness (Deut. 32:10) He did not use the word we translate as “void” elsewhere. But it can also merely mean emptiness.
    In any case the suggestion that there was “death and disorder” prior to the creation of life and all that was good I believe is unjustified and casts a shadow on the creation account.

  14. Tim:

    The list is long of those who see a pre-creation battle between Lucifer and God (see references above to Isaiah and Ezekiel). Lucifer lost. Lucifer fell. Hence, a pre-creation fall.

    It seems that you equate “good” with “perfect.” They are not synonymous. “Wilderness” is a metaphor for chaos and darkness – exactly how Genesis 1:1 describes the cosmos prior to God beginning to order it. “Death” is separation, Lucifer and his fallen angels were separated from God, so death and disorder rightly describe “formless and void.”

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