Criticism of Mormonism/Cognitive dissonance

FAIR Answers Wiki Main Page

Mormonism and "cognitive dissonance"

Jump to Subtopic:

Question: What is "cognitive dissonance" and how does it relate to Mormonism?

Some critics of Mormonism appeal to the social psychological concept of “cognitive dissonance” to dismiss the spiritual witnesses of intelligent, articulate members

Many critics of the Church portray members as either naive, ill-informed dupes or cynical exploiters. Fortunately, most fair-minded people realize that—just as in any religion—there are intelligent, well-informed people who become or remain members of the Church. In response, some critics appeal to the social psychological concept of “cognitive dissonance” to dismiss the spiritual witnesses of intelligent, articulate members. [1]

Cognitive dissonance theory, when applied with a critic’s intent to explaining away the witnesses and convictions of believers, is badly flawed

Cognitive dissonance theory, when applied with a critic’s intent to explaining away the witnesses and convictions of believers, is badly flawed. Critics' efforts fail on many grounds:

  • Cognitive dissonance is a “motivational state” like hope or remorse or love. The fact that it may be operating does not exclude the possibility of a spiritual witness.
  • Critics define what evidence or beliefs are "rational" and which are "false" or "irrational." In doing so, the dice are loaded from the start since it's the critics' epistemological assumptions that will determine the outcome.
  • Critics can dismiss any attitude or conviction using the concept of cognitive dissonance. Conversely, believers can dismiss any argument made by critics using the same concept. The arguments cancel each other, resulting in a nil score.
  • Critics’ claims rely on inferences about hidden, unverifiable, unfalsifiable, “subconscious” sources.
  • Critics reject subjects' self-reports of experiences and inner states in favor of their own assumptions.

Critics argue that believers make claims of love for and faith in the gospel in order to explain why they would put up with the demands and difficulties of a Church oriented lifestyle

Cognitive dissonance theory was first described in the 1957 by social psychologist Leon Festinger.[2] The term describes the unpleasant feeling arising from an awareness of a difference between what we feel or believe and how we are actually acting. Cognitive dissonance can also arise when we hold two or more different beliefs that conflict with each other. It’s an uncomfortable, even painful state. It’s aversive enough to drive us to make changes. When we feel cognitive dissonance, we’re motivated to reduce it and return to a state of psychological harmony.

Critics argue that believers make claims of love for and faith in the gospel in order to explain why they would put up with the demands and difficulties of a Church oriented lifestyle. It’s argued by critics that members don’t actually receive spiritual witnesses. Instead, it’s argued, members invent personal spiritual myths to reduce the dissonance they feel when they take on religious rules and responsibilities that yield minimal rewards. Inventing a reward like a spiritual witness makes the dissonance go away. It makes the social transaction of compliance to a religious way of life make sense.

A Case Study

Consider the payment of tithing to the Church as a case study. If a Church member doesn’t pay tithing but believes he should be paying it, he’s in a state of cognitive dissonance. His beliefs are in conflict with his actions. It’s painful to him. In order to restore inner equilibrium, he can reduce the dissonance, acquire new information, or minimize the importance of the dissonance to a point where it doesn’t bother him anymore. The conflicted non-tithe payer can choose from four different strategies:

  1. Acquiring New Information—He might try to restore his inner harmony by gathering more information. Maybe he’ll comb news items to see how the Church spends money. He might demand an accounting from Church leaders detailing how all his individual donations are spent. He could continue to do this until he either a) decided tithing is well-spent and he should begin paying it or b) decided the Church is wasteful and/or misguided and doesn’t deserve his money until it undergoes a reformation. He might tell himself that he’d like to pay tithing but he can’t do it in good conscience when the Church is undeserving of the money.
  2. Minimizing the Importance of the Inconsistency—He might convince himself that it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t pay tithing because his tithing really isn’t important to the Church. After accepting this minimization, he can feel better about not paying it. After all, the Church appears prosperous. Its programs seem well-funded. It can afford to donate to humanitarian efforts. He could even promise himself if it ever looked like the Church was suffering and needed his personal funds, he’d start paying it.
  3. Reducing the Dissonance by Accepting the Attitude and Changing the Behavior—He might look for and emphasize the benefits of the behavior (paying tithing) and ignore the negative effects of giving up ten percent of one’s income. He pays tithing. He changes his behavior and eliminates the dissonance between his attitudes and actions. This is the process critics point to as acting as a counterfeit for conversion through a spiritual witness.
  4. Reducing the Dissonance by Accepting the Behavior and Changing the Attitude—In this case, the conflicted tithe payer accepts his non-payment of tithing. He brings his attitudes about tithing into harmony with his practice of not paying it. In order to do this, he now claims his former belief about the Church being “true” was wrong. His attitude has changed and he is justified in abandoning tithing and keeping his money.

How do the critics misuse it?

The Irony

This is where the irony of cognitive dissonance as a complaint against believers emerges. Of the four possibilities listed above, only one applies to people who persist in their belief in the Church. The other three can lead to a full or partial departure from Church life. Most of the strategies for managing cognitive dissonance don’t lead people to stay in the Church. On the contrary, they lead people out of it. The same kind of analysis could be made with other challenging aspects of Church life such as home teaching, sexual behavior, honesty, Sabbath observance, etc.

In the spirit of “live by the sword, die by the sword,” critics who level cognitive dissonance at believers should consider the role of the same phenomenon in their own thoughts, feelings, and convictions. All people experience cognitive dissonance when we do or learn something that does not match what we previously thought or believed. None of us is immune to it.

Even though cognitive dissonance may be real and universal, its operation alone says nothing about the quality or truth of someone's beliefs. The presence, or resolution, of dissonance proves nothing about the facts in question.

Motivational States

Admitting the possibility that cognitive dissonance may play a role in religious choices is not the same thing as dismissing the possibility that real spiritual witnesses are also factors. The dichotomy critics have used to frame the relationship between cognitive dissonance and a spiritual witness is a false one. Nothing in cognitive dissonance theory demands it be exclusive of all other motivating factors and influences.

From the very beginning, cognitive dissonance was a term meant to describe a “motivational state.” There are many different kinds of motivational states. They include our most basic feelings like hunger, fear and lust or they may be more complicated emotions like curiosity, guilt, hope, or love. Cognitive dissonance falls into the same category as these feelings. What they have in common is that they’re internal states that drive us to action.

Most of us will recognize motivational states such as hope and love and remorse as common themes in personal stories of spiritual witnesses. We’ve come to expect believers to refer to these kinds of motivational states in their accounts. Even Mormon scriptures deal at length with the role of hope and desire in faith acquisition Moroni 7:40 Alma 32:27. No one apologizes for the role of motivational states in spiritual life. The same frankness should exist when addressing the motivational state of cognitive dissonance. Why should believers be expected to assume a defensive posture when a critic complains cognitive dissonance is operating? It may be an underlying factor, like dozens of other possible factors. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the only one. That would be like claiming anything we do while we're hungry is the result of that hunger alone and can't be attributed to any other motivation. Such a claim would be clearly ridiculous.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory does not undermine the possibility of receiving a genuine spiritual witness. It simply illuminates another of many motivational states. These states may be tools or stepping stones believers can use as they progress toward more sublime experiences.

The Problem of Falsifiability

Michael Shermer, an agnostic and writer for Skeptic magazine, specifically dismissed the idea that cognitive dissonance could serve as a tool to explain away the convictions of religious believers as a group:

It would be a long stretch to classify [millions of white, middle class American Christians] as oppressed, disenfranchised, or marginalized…[millions of apocalyptically-inclined] Americans are anything but in a state of learned helplessness or cognitive dissonance. Indeed, some recent polls and studies indicate that religious people, on average, may be both physically and psychologically happier and healthier than non-believers.[3]

This is not to say Shermer would deny some believers might be misusing cognitive dissonance. However, he balks at using cognitive dissonance to explain an entire group of believers.

Non-believers claim that their invocation of cognitive dissonance is scientific and objective. However, this claim doesn't measure up to one of the most important principles of a scientific inquiry: falsifiability. And a hallmark of pseudoscience is its inability to be falsified.

The criterion of falsifiability...says that statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable, observations.[4]

It’s difficult to imagine a setting where faithful Mormons could be given a proper chance to prove that their resistance to anti-Mormon "evidence" operates independently of cognitive dissonance. Until someone can create such a setting, critics' claims about believers are not falsifiable and, therefore, not strictly scientific.

Dissonance is easier to identify when the group of people in question is exposed to the same situation and makes the same kinds of choices under controlled conditions. Festinger’s initial experiments on cognitive dissonance were conducted in controlled laboratory settings where simple tasks and questions were used to measure behaviors and attitudes. Though later attempts were made to extend the experimental principles into real social situations, no further claims about how cognitive dissonance actually operates can boast the same rigor as the basic experimental data. Trying to tease out why an individual holds or rejects specific religious or philosophical positions is a much taller order. Religious attitudes and behaviors are complicated and nuanced and drawn out over lifetimes. They don’t reduce well to laboratory settings. Critics try to extrapolate the first simple, straightforward findings into areas of social and spiritual life where the original concepts and methods can never venture.

Problems in the Rules of Engagement

This is not to say that cognitive dissonance cannot play a problematic role in religious beliefs. However, it can play a problematic role in beliefs of all sorts—the religious as well as the non-religious or even anti-religious.

It might play a role in some Mormons' refusal to accept uncomfortable “glitches.” But without access to others’ reasoning and spiritual experiences, critics cannot objectively evaluate the influence of cognitive dissonance in others’ religious attitudes and behaviors.

Many critics seem unwilling to recognize that men and women of good will and sound intelligence might honestly disagree on the interpretation of evidence, even when considering it with all the objectivity they can muster. This is, for example, why some people will buy stock at a price at which other people are eager to sell. Surely the entire economy isn’t merely an exercise in cognitive dissonance reduction.

LDS critics often have a naïve, over-simplified view of historians’ work. They may assume anyone who disbelieves a religious account is somehow more free from bias than a believer. Such a stance ignores the fact that unbelievers may feel as great a stake in disproving uncomfortable and uncompromising religious claims as believers might in supporting them. Non-believing critics may be prone to labeling interpretations with which they do not agree as examples of “cognitive dissonance” while their own positions are portrayed as products of dispassionate analysis.

Mining the Subconscious

One critic espousing cognitive dissonance as a problem in religious life tells us:

The most important part of this analysis, by far, is to recognize that the forces we are about to discuss [cognitive dissonance] operate mostly at the subconscious level. To the extent we drag them into the conscious realm, they largely stop operating.[5]

“Subconscious” forces used to explain behavior, especially by the outside observer, can only be unfalsifiable hypotheses. How can anyone know that a “cause” which has been supposedly dragged from subconscious is genuine? Since a person is—by definition—unaware of subconscious processes, how can the critic know with any confidence that the "forces we are about to discuss" look anything like the subconscious ones? How can anyone say that A and B are the same thing if no one can get a certain look at A?

Despite these major hurdles, critics seem to presume they can reliably determine others’ subconscious processes and “drag them into the conscious realm.” It’s an especially remarkable claim since critics don’t usually claim to have interviewed or analyzed any of the believers of whom they speak. Not even Freud made claims like these about our access to the subconscious.

The critic then makes the equally strange assertion that these effects “largely stop operating” if believers become aware of them. Even if the critic has identified a proper “subconscious force”—something of which he can never be sure—this belief is extraordinarily optimistic. The accepted wisdom in counseling or mental health work has long been that awareness of a problem rarely provides a direct line to altering thinking or behavior. Mental health services are not merely magic confessionals.

The critic goes on:

The message that booms through the above evidence to me is that the denial inducing nature of cognitive dissonance makes it difficult to self-diagnose.[6]

Unfortunately for the critics, if we assume that this is true, then critics themselves are equally vulnerable to the same treatment. The faithful Mormon could just as easily respond that an anti-Mormon's perspective is all due to cognitive dissonance. The anti-Mormon just doesn't know it because such a condition is "difficult to self-diagnose."

Appeals to cognitive dissonance allow the critic to fit the evidence to his biases and “diagnose” flaws in others. No matter how much faithful Mormons might insist the critic does not understand Mormons’ points of view or evaluations of the evidence, this just serves as stronger evidence to the critic of the depth of the Mormons’ delusions.

In the hands of critics, cognitive dissonance is a self-fulfilling prophecy, or a variation of the observer-expectancy effect. It is full of fallacies. It is a substitute for rational discussion of the evidence and for thoughtful consideration of the possibility of a real the witness of the Spirit.

Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D., "“Believest thou…?”: Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience"

Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D.,  Proceedings of the 2005 FAIR Conference, (August 2005)
It’s an old and frequent spiritual question, and it shows up in many forms. It is the question Jesus asks the disciples who hear his troubling and offending discourse on being someone whose flesh must be eaten and whose blood drunk by those who would have eternal life. The discourse confuses many, who turn back and follow him no more, and then, to those who remain Jesus asks the question, “Will ye also go away?”1 To the man who seeks out Jesus to heal his deeply troubled son, the question is implied, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.”2 To Nephi, approached by an angel after he is carried away to the top of a high mountain, the question is more direct: “Believest thou that thy father saw the tree of which he hath spoken?”3 And to the brother of Jared, who asks to see the premortal Jesus after hearing his voice and seeing his hand, the question is perhaps most clearly stated, “Believest thou the words which I shall speak?”

Click here to view the complete article

Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims


  1. Bob McCue, “Notes for Van Hale’s Radio Show”; e-mail posting (5 September 2004), copy in author's possession; Bob McCue, “Van Hale’s ‘Mormon Miscellaneous’ Radio Talk Show,” Version 3, 20 Sept 2004.
  2. Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, 1957).
  3. Michael Shermer, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science (New York: WH Freeman and Company, 1999),211–212
  4. Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations (London: Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1963), 33.
  5. Bob McCue, “Notes for Van Hale’s Radio Show”; e-mail posting (5 September 2004), copy in author's possession.
  6. Bob McCue, “Notes for Van Hale’s Radio Show”; e-mail posting (5 September 2004), copy in author's possession.