Can you posit an evolutionary basis for cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization?

doctoro's picture
Posts: 196
Joined: 2006-12-15
User is offlineOffline
Can you posit an evolutionary basis for cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization?

Can you posit an evolutionary basis for cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization?

 Is there any evolutionary basis for "needing certainty" on particular questions?

 Cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization relate two having two conflicting ideas or beliefs that you resolve by either

1.  Actually convincing yourself of something that seems false because the belief is useful.

2.  Holding both conflicting ideas in your mind in separate "compartments".  As an analogy, consider a harddrive on a computer holding two different operating systems, Linux and Windows Vista.  As with such a computer, a person shifts between these "operating systems" that are diametrically opposed.

This is very important in religion.  Constantly, I am amused at how moderate Christians can reason away the unpleasantries of the Bible and constructively interpret them as something good or that the author "really didn't mean it literally."  They create elaborate "hermaneutical" systems whereby they can interpret any Biblical passage to suit their needs.

Thus, such Christians have a set sense of ethics and reason that are in direct conflict with the basis of their faith.  So they find a way to resolve the issue with rationalizations. 

I believe I can reason this out on my own, but I would like to know what others think.

Posts: 346
Joined: 2006-10-24
User is offlineOffline
I believe cognitive

I believe cognitive dissonance was evolutionary adaptation after the entrance of conciousness into the human.  It seems to be some sort of coping mechanism that allows one to suspend full judgement/belief.  Keeps you from going crazy when you are confused about certain ideas.  It is a defense from the anxiety elicited by thoughts that may induce anxiety.


My 2 cents. 

The Enlightenment wounded the beast, but the killing blow has yet to land...

High Level DonorModeratorRRS Core Member
Hambydammit's picture
Posts: 8657
Joined: 2006-10-22
User is offlineOffline
This is probably not even

This is probably not even two cents, because evolution is not my field, but here's what popped off the top of my head.

Cognitive dissonance, if not dealt with, could have debilitating effects. Consider a child whose father says "I love you, Suzy" every day before sending her off to school, and then beats the crap out of her every day when she gets home from school. Suzy can look at the other kids and see that their parents don't behave that way, and yet all the other kids say their parents love them.

As a young child, peer acceptance is paramount, and loving, supportive parents, while not completely necessary, are a huge help in the socialization of a child. Suzy is faced with two logical choices:

1) Daddy doesn't love me.

2) Daddy does love me, but love has another definition for daddy.

Now, I know this is a flawed example, because we don't really have a definition of love, so don't sue me over it. Just follow the example, and I think you'll get my point. There IS a cognitive dissonance here. It's just not perfectly defined.

Anyway, if Suzy decides "Daddy doesn't love me," she's in a world of hurt. She hasn't lived long enough to understand that there is life away from the parents, or that the approval of her grade school peers will seem irrelevant in twenty years. All she can see is her entire future -- her whole life in front of her, without Daddy loving her. This choice is so terrifying, that it simply can't be real. (Of course, it is real, but Suzy has not learned yet that life bears her no will, good or bad, and she might just end up a quadraplegic tomorrow morning, and the world would march along, barely noticing.)

So, Suzy makes the only choice that fits her world model, and decides that her daddy does love her. Over the years, people will try to convince her otherwise. They will point out that he is an asshole to her, that he's never done anything but beat her, that other people's parents don't treat them that way, etc.. etc... but she will be unmoved. Before long, the decision will outweigh the consequenses. In other words, even after Daddy is dead or sent to prison, and has no other direct effect on Suzy's life, she will continue to profess that her dad loves her -- not because she needs his support, but because admitting her decision was wrong will force her to reevaluate her entire life based on the fact that she was so disasterously wrong about this important issue.

You can see how it can snowball... there could be many cognitive dissonances that would arise from her belief that her dad loves her, and she will make poor decisions on all of them because of that core belief. It will set up a cycle of cognitive dissonance.


I know I haven't really answered your question. I've been describing a modern day scene, but I think it has relevance to evolution. Early childhood naivety is fertile ground for cognitive dissonance, and I suspect that it is linked to a child's perception of their parents as the "ultimate provider." We know that compliance to parents(authority) is something that is an evolutionary benefit for young. Cognitive dissonance, I believe, could be an example of that evolutionary trait gone slightly awry.

So, adults who have an easy time accepting cognitive dissonance perhaps learned early in life that sometimes A is true and false at the same time, and then continued that trend, while more skeptical minds either a) didn't encounter such scenarios, or b) encountered them later, or c) received guidance at an early age that helped them to overcome the tendency to rationalize A and Not A.

If you're interested, the idea of a "core belief" is central to cognitive therapy, which is gaining a great deal of support in the psychology community. The basic premise is that a cognitive dissonance causes a faulty "core belief" which in turn causes faulty decision making, and eventually, automated pathways form, so that the decision making process is bypassed, and the faulty core belief has caused a more or less permanent delusion.

I hope some of this has helped a little.


Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin
Books about atheism

Vastet's picture
Posts: 13211
Joined: 2006-12-25
User is offlineOffline
My two cents is that it

My two cents is that it would be a natural thing to arise once education became an overiding factor. When you consider how may beliefs the human species has had(and taught), even just those that we know about over the last few thousand years, and how many of them have been proven wrong, it would seem to make sense that the ability to keep learned information aside in a state of fence sitting until confirmed as accurate or false would be a useful quality to have. Definately a survival benefit under the right circumstances.

Hopefully that makes sense to more than just myself. > >

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.