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We know that situations that induce cognitive dissonance cause a variety of interesting behaviors in humans.

But do we know why relieving cognitive dissonance is such a powerful motivator? What happens if that dissonance is not relieved?

Are there any known cases from history or animal experiments where humans or animals were subjected to prolonged cognitive dissonance? If so, what happened in those cases?

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Summary (copied from last paragraph)

It appears that extended exposure to cognitive dissonance ignites an initial emotional reaction that is then mediated by the rationalization process. If no rationalization can be made, or if the emotion cannot be effectively controlled by the individual, then the initial emotional reaction may grow more powerful, resulting in mood-regulation disorders such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. [5]

Details

Cognitive dissonance is thought to reveal a human's internal desire for consistency. Those who experience cognitive dissonance become psychologically uncomfortable, and thus may take measure to reduce situations that may induce cognitive dissonance. [1]

Humans have a tendency to want to explain how the world works. There is a discomfort in not 'knowing'. In cognitive dissonance theory, there are several underlying themes, most notably that of religion in cognitive dissonance. Insofar as the theory goes, religion is one helpful mechanism for avoiding cognitive dissonance, as religion often provides an explanation for the nature and generation of the world, as well as a set of guidelines to follow. This provides humans with internal consistency. Skepticism/loyalty to the 'objective' nature of the scientific method can be another form of avoiding cognitive dissonance. [2] Rejection of any sort of method of navigation (or purpose) in the world often lends itself to a feeling of nihilism, though this is not always related to cognitive dissonance as it is defined.

Sigmund Freud himself observed several instances of what he coined as "Das Unheimliche" -- German for 'the opposite of what is familiar', and translated into English as 'the uncanny'. He describes it as the experience of that which is strangely familiar, not just mysterious. Though the term is not an adequate synonym for 'cognitive dissonance', it is nonetheless relevant in the reaction it produces:

Because the uncanny is familiar, yet incongruous, it has been seen as creating cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject, due to the paradoxical nature of being simultaneously attracted to yet repulsed by an object. This cognitive dissonance often leads to an outright rejection of the object, as one would rather reject than rationalize, as in the uncanny valley effect.

This initial emotional response is supported by neuroscientific literature when we consider cognitive dissonance as an observable phenomenon. College students who were told to write an argumentative essay in support of a stance that they did not agree with showed increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. Next, the left frontal cortex was activated, which is known to activate the 'approach motivational system'. [3] The motivational directions model asserts that this system regulates one's response to their own anger. If the situation cannot be controlled or changed by the person, they may have less motivation to reduce or regulate their anger, and other emotions may arise. [4]

Thus, it appears that extended exposure to cognitive dissonance ignites an initial emotional reaction that is then mediated by the rationalization process. If no rationalization can be made, or if the emotion cannot be effectively controlled by the individual, then the initial emotional reaction may grow more powerful, resulting in mood-regulation disorders such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. [5]


Sources:

[1] Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.

[2] R. A. Wicklund, J. W. Brehm. (1976). Perspectives on Cognitive Dissonance.

[3] Beauvois, J. L., Joule, R. V., 1996. A radical dissonance theory. London: Taylor and Francis.

[4] Harmon-Jones, E., Mills, J., Cognitive Dissonance: Perspectives on a Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, pp. 71–99.

[5] Hull, A.M. (2002). Neuroimaging findings in post-traumatic stress disorder. The British Journal of Psychiatry 181: 102-10.

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    $\begingroup$ Hi @Sydney, I did not vote down your answer. However, I'm not seeing any mention of cognitive dissonance in the reference you mentioned in your last paragraph [5] bjp.rcpsych.org/content/181/2/102.long . Can you elaborate where it supports the statement that "the initial emotional reaction may grow more powerful, resulting in mood-regulation disorders such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder"? $\endgroup$ – Justas Aug 6 '15 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Justas I apologize for being unclear. In source [5], I was referring to the role of the anterior cingulate cortex in regulating fear. Search for the paragraph beginning with 'The absence of increased anterior cingulate activation...'. Further, 'After treatment there were two areas of increased activity: the anterior cingulate cortex and the left frontal lobe.' I was supporting the notion that the anterior cingulate cortex (insofar as it is linked to cognitive dissonance) is also linked to trauma / emotional disorders. Hopefully that makes my original paragraph a little clearer. $\endgroup$ – Sydney Maples Aug 6 '15 at 5:24
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    $\begingroup$ What page in the pdf contains the "extended exposure to cognitive dissonance ignites an initial emotional reaction that is then mediated by the rationalization process. If no rationalization can be made, or if the emotion cannot be effectively controlled by the individual, then the initial emotional reaction may grow more powerful, resulting in mood-regulation disorders such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. " ? $\endgroup$ – Jack Bauer Aug 6 '15 at 8:42
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    $\begingroup$ @JackBauer does the comment that I made right above yours answer your question? If not I can clarify further, and/or edit my original post. $\endgroup$ – Sydney Maples Aug 6 '15 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ @JackBauer I actually didn't put that part into my post. The original poster had edited my post to say that. I am assuming that that was what he had meant. $\endgroup$ – Sydney Maples Aug 8 '15 at 21:29

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