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Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon which refers to the discomfort felt at a discrepancy between what you already know or believe, and new information or interpretation. It therefore occurs when there is a need to accommodate new ideas, and it may be necessary for it to develop so that we become "open" to them. Neighbour (1992) makes the generation of appropriate dissonance into a major feature of tutorial (and other) teaching: he shows how to drive this kind of intellectual wedge between learners' current beliefs and "reality".

Beyond this benign if uncomfortable aspect, however, dissonance can go "over the top", leading to two interesting side-effects for learning:

  • if someone is called upon to learn something which contradicts what they already think they know — particularly if they are committed to that prior knowledge — they are likely to resist the new learning. Even Carl Rogers recognised this. Accommodation is more difficult than Assimilation, in Piaget's terms.
                 
  • if learning something has been difficult, uncomfortable, or even humiliating enough, people are not likely to admit that the content of what has been learned is not valuable. To do so would be to admit that one has been "had", or "conned".

These weblinks will give a more formal and less idiosyncratic account:

http://www.afirstlook.com/archive
/cogdiss.cfm?source=archther

http://www.apa.org/books/
4318830s.html

Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger and associates, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen. While fringe members were more inclined to recognise that they had made fools of themselves and to "put it down to experience", committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).

 

Ordeal is therefore an effective — if spurious — way of conferring value on an educational (or any other) experience. "No pain, no gain", as they say. 
  • the more difficult it is to get on a course, the more participants are likely to value it and view it favourably regardless of its real quality.
       
  • ditto, the more expensive it is.
       
  • the more obscure and convoluted the subject, the more profound it must be. This has of course been exploited for years to persuade us of the existence of the emperor's clothes, particularly by French "intellectuals". (I recently came across the wonderful phrase "intellectual flatulence" which perfectly describes such rubbish)

It is not, however, the qualities of the course which are significant, as the amount of effort which participants have to put in: so the same qualification may well be valued more by the student who had to struggle for it than the student who sailed through.

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