Cognitive dissonance: our past choices may affect our current value system

Research Published February 6 2017
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In a new study, Mariam Chammat, post-doctoral researcher (FRM) and Prof Lionel Naccache (AP-HP, UPMC), team leader at the Institut du Cerveau – ICM, found that the renowned psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance is closely linked to episodic memory by which we remember past experiences and their context (date, location, emotional state). Our subjective preferences are altered by our past choices only when we remember them. This research was conducted in collaboration with the PICNIC Lab at the Institut du Cerveau – ICM.

Our preferences determine our actions: this may seem obvious, but the opposite isn’t as simple to grasp. However, it appears that in certain situations, our past actions influence our current preferences and judgements.

For example, once we select object A rather than object B – even though they were both equally desirable – , we tend to increase our preference for A and lower our preference for B. Our preferences and values are therefore transformed by our actions. This cognitive process is known as “cognitive dissonance” in experimental psychology, named after the expression coined in the late 1950s by American psychologist Leon Festinger.

This transformation of subjective values through our actions can be found in many different situations both in everyday life and in a laboratory setting. For example, when students who are against the death penalty are asked to write an essay in favor of it, researchers found that simply writing about it impacts their judgement.

Since the 1950s, many experiments have been carried out on this topic and its consequences on our lives as citizens. Two main and contrasting theories explain cognitive dissonance and associated phenomena. On one hand, research suggests that cognitive dissonance relies on a « high-level » mental mechanism, self-referenced, that maintains subjective coherence: how to agree today with yesterday’s actions. On the other hand, other research supports a « low-level » mechanism, automatic and unconscious, observed in capuchin monkeys, newborns, and patients suffering from amnesia. However, it must be noted that subtle methodology issues discovered recently make these results unclear.

In an article published January 23, 2017 in the international Nature journal Scientific Reports, Mariam Chammat, Lionel Naccache and colleagues detail a new series of experiments that will answer this question by demonstrating a close relationship between cognitive dissonance and memory of our past actions. Using a sophisticated experimental protocol in both healthy and amnesiac participants, they proved that our past choices do indeed influence our current values… if and only if we remember our choices. Functional MRI recording of episodic memory neural network brain activity (« I remember ») and intra-cerebral recording enabled detection of the brain signature for memory recall of past choices immediately before participants modify their preferences unknowingly.

Based on their discovery, the authors put forward an explanation for cognitive dissonance based on the regulation of subjective coherence in conscious thinking: how to agree, today, with what we were in the past and what we remember.

Applied to our role as citizens, this research suggests a potentially detrimental role played by compromise (social, political, professional, affective, moral…), when we accept to act in a way that is contrary to our values. Although we may wrongly believe that these acts will not affect our value system, they can in fact transform it, with varying degrees of depth.
Finally, exploring disruptions in this homeostatic mechanism of mental life (to quote Claude Bernard) may shed new light on several neurological or psychiatric disorders. As Hegel once said, insanity is not an “abstract loss of reason” as much as a “contradiction within the remaining reason”.

This article was initially published by the AP-HP.

Reference: Cognitive dissonance resolution depends on episodic memory. Mariam Chammat, Imen El Karoui, Sébastien Allali, Joshua Hagège, Katia Lehongre, Dominique Hasboun, Michel Baulac, Stéphane Epelbaum, Agnès Michon, Bruno Dubois, Vincent Navarro, Moti Salti, Lionel Naccache, Scientific Report, January 23, 2017.