Cognitive Dissonance and the Human Fall

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By Gordon L. Anderson

GordonI find it increasingly difficult to talk about the human fall in a secular culture by using scriptural justifications. The Divine Principle is a book written in the language and culture of Judeo-Christian thought, but the language of our current culture is more shaped by universities than by churches. I have found audiences show greater understanding of concepts like the Fall when using terms from social psychology.

Reaction and integrity

My basic position is that reaction is a characteristic of the growth stage and integrity is characteristic of the perfection stage or maturity. Adam and Eve were given a commandment “not to eat of the fruit” when they were children because they did not live in a state of integrity, and were subject to impulsive reactions. Adam and Eve fell at the top of the growth stage through such a reaction and disobeyed the commandment. If they had reached integrity they would understand the consequence of their actions and would not have acted blindly. Obeying the commandment would have kept them on course so they could each grow to maturity and be in a position to raise children from integrity before consummating their marriage.

Cognitive dissonance

The concept of “cognitive dissonance” can help us understand the motivation for the human Fall. Cognitive dissonance is when we expect one thing based on our beliefs and understandings, but experience something else. Cognitive dissonance causes frustration and is uncomfortable.

One example is when a child expects to find a cookie in the cookie jar, but the jar is empty. This can cause frustration, and the child might react by crying or throwing the cookie jar.

A second example is the story of Adam and Eve. God told Adam and Eve it would be bad to eat of the fruit, but Lucifer told them it would be good. Adam and Eve chose to believe Lucifer because they were naïve and wanted to believe his false promise, which did lead to evil.

Another example of cognitive dissonance was the German Holocaust. Jews had been taught by tradition that, if they were faithful, God would bless them. But many Jews who believed they were faithful were exterminated. One reaction to this dissonance was to stop believing in God.

Cognitive dissonance is inevitable because: (1) individuals aren’t born with perfect knowledge, but need to learn, and, (2) because the world is always in a state of change, and yesterday’s knowledge may not be adequate for today’s or tomorrow’s challenges. The important thing is whether one reacts to it or responds with integrity.

Human brain development

Among animals and plants, human beings are uniquely designed to adapt to change by having most of their brain development occur after birth. Children begin learning by observing and repeating the behavior of those around them. These behavioral patterns could be called our native patterns, or those which we received from the people who raised us. To a large extent we are expected to value the things they value, speak the way they speak, dress the way they dress, and eat the things they eat. These behavioral patterns are transmitted intuitively to the brain. The social surroundings of a child for its first 10-12 years are an extension of the womb for brain development.

Because the world is always changing and providing challenges, an individual needs to learn to transcend and go beyond the start he or she was given by society, to serve as a bridge to the future by adapting and transforming the received culture into one appropriate for his or her own life.

This stage of growth involves individuation, or moving beyond the patterns we have inherited and forging a path for ourselves that goes beyond what the previous generation provided us. It begins by comparing and analyzing the world around us that we see and the world that we inherited. When we observe something unexpected, or incompatible with our ideals, that is not explained by what we already have learned, we experience cognitive dissonance.

Two forms of reaction: flight or fight

Because cognitive dissonance is frustrating and emotionally uncomfortable, people seek to reduce it. There are three ways to reduce cognitive dissonance: two immature ways and a mature way. The two immature ways are reactions.

This first type of reaction is to retreat to the safety of our parents or our received tradition. Religious fundamentalists are in this camp when they refuse to recognize something inconsistent with their beliefs – such as when they reject the scientific evidence human beings have been on earth more than 6,000 years because that is what the Bible says.

The second type of reaction is rejection of one entire inherited worldview because our sense experience proves something one was taught is not true. An example of this is the person who claims to be an atheist because the Bible is false because it says the world was created in six days. The atheist reaction might be to destroy tradition, even though he has no moral bearings or understanding of his purpose.

Abel- and Cain-type reactions

In Unificationist terminology, these two types of reactions can be called Abel-type and Cain-type. Both are reactions, and therefore the behavior of children. Abel’s position, even though not an adult position of integrity, was a position relatively closer to God because Abel chose to accept that which he could not explain, and he was still on a path of growth to perfection. Cain, on the other hand, rejected his parent’s will and killed Abel, much like a frustrated child throwing a cookie jar. But that reaction led to evil, which is to cause other people death and suffering, and it knocked Cain off the path of growth to perfection.

But both Cain- and Abel-type reactions are reflections of child-level behavior rooted in fight or flight instincts. There is no ability to see shades of gray or view the world from the perspective of another person. We can only accept one view, that of our own, and we want to force our view on everyone else to reduce our own cognitive dissonance. On the group level, this is in-group/out-group thinking.

The Christian Church held this child-level view during the Middle Ages, many Islamists hold this view when they attempt to impose Sharia law by force, and communist ideologues reacted similarly when they stated that no more sociology needed to be taught because Marx had the final word. Today, those that say “climate science is settled” reflect this same attempt to dismiss cognitive dissonance. A true scientist will never believe anything is settled, but that there is always more to learn.

Cognitive Dissonance

Integrity or maturity

Trying to dismiss a dissonant view is rooted in a lack of the ability for self-transcendence, which involves the ability to transcend our own view to see things as they are, to feel empathy, and to put ourselves in the position of others, to overcome stereotypes that are transmitted to us through our language, culture and experience. Self-transcendence is the first step towards attaining God-consciousness.

An integral person is one who can transcend him or herself and grasp an entire picture, see all points of view, reconcile past, present and future. With respect to cognitive dissonance theory, this means reducing the dissonance, not by reaction or rejection, but by a higher perspective informed by new knowledge or learning. A true parent is a person of integrity who can lead social evolution toward a better society by being able to encounter challenges with integrity.

Empathy and abstraction as self-transcendence and maturity

We recognize the reality of others through empathy, by being able to put ourselves in another’s place, and understand how they see the world. We can create more desirable realities with the ability to think abstractly and imagine alternate realities. Both empathy and abstraction are forms of self-transcendence, with empathy being primarily a function of the right brain, and abstraction being a function of the left. Empathy and abstraction are processes learned and developed after human beings are born.

A typical first introduction to empathy might be when a child reacts to a brother or sister with the animal instinct, for example by pushing them down and grabbing the toy with which they were playing. The parent will grab the child, give the toy back to the person it was stolen from, and say something like “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” This child-raising activity is an example of a socialization process that teaches empathy.

Abstraction is the form of self-transcendence that enables problem-solving and creativity. Abstraction is a function of reason and imagination. “2+2=4” is one of the most common examples of abstraction. Language is also a form of abstraction. Every word is a label and can be considered an approximate stereotype, and a stereotype never describes a thing exactly. Therefore, especially a large collection of words, like a sacred scripture that attempts to explain the truth about human life, can never be understood exactly the same by different people who understand different things when they hear the same words. This limitation is why the Divine Principle says the Bible is a textbook of the truth, but not the truth itself.

Scripture and cognitive dissonance

The Divine Principle represents a mature integral approach to scripture because it contains new insights into the nature of reality that the Bible does not explain accurately enough. However, it does not reject the Bible or the ancient truths contained in it, but builds on them and explains them in more modern language.

The Ten Commandments might be ancient, but they are important and have lasted thousands of years; they work to create social peace and harmony. They affirm the primary rules of socialization that are achieved in self-transcendence. Practicing the Ten Commandments causes harmonious relations in society, even if individuals or their parents fail internally to accomplish self-transcendence. Even if one is not mature, if they obey these commandments they will stay out of trouble. These commandments exist for the same reason Adam and Eve were given a commandment not to eat of the fruit.

Conclusion

I have discussed the Fall in terms of human development and the role of cognitive dissonance, something that occurs everywhere in human life. Neither a conservative reaction nor a liberal rejection is an integral, mature way to solve a problem. Much of the behavior among people who are supposed to be adults is some form of reaction in the form of self-justification, dismissal of other’s views, the attempt to impose their own view through force, and the unwillingness to gather new information and solve a problem integrally. This is fallen nature, and it is on display everywhere, particularly in religious and political rhetoric.

However, once we know the cause and effects of the Fall, we are in a position to do something about it by transcending ourselves and our groups and seeking out the knowledge and principles that exist in the physical and social realities outside our minds. Human dialogue and good science can help resolve seemingly the intractable conflicts caused by those who want to childishly either wish a problem away and bury their heads in the past, or by those who would throw the baby out with the bathwater.  If you feel frustrated or angry, count to ten. Seek a transcendent position and information that can integrally reduce dissonance and create peace.♦

Dr. Gordon L. Anderson (UTS Class of 1978) is the President of Paragon House, Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal on World Peace, and Adjunct Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He earned an M.Div. in Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion from Claremont Graduate University.

Photo at top: “Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden” (1978-85), by Marc Chagall, portion of stained glass window in St. Stephen’s Church, Mainz, Germany.

10 thoughts on “Cognitive Dissonance and the Human Fall

  1. Thanks for this interesting article! Allow me to start my argument with quoting some of your statements:

    “One example is when a child expects to find a cookie in the cookie jar, but the jar is empty.”

    The empty jar may refer to Lucifer not feeling God’s love if compared to A&E. The jar in this example should not be empty, however, but the cookies are for someone else; this is closer to the motivation of the fall in my opinion.

    “God told Adam and Eve it would be bad to eat of the fruit, but Lucifer told them it would be good. Adam and Eve chose to believe Lucifer because they were naïve and wanted to believe his false promise, which did lead to evil”.

    We know that Lucifer was playing with love in front of Eve. In the end, it was not a matter of choice, but the gravitational power of (sexual) love that led to the fall.

    The motivation of the fall as you try to explain it in your context is incomplete, I believe, because the root problem is how to deal with lack of love and jealousy. Dissonances as you describe them are a secondary factor that comes into place as a result, or out of simple ignorance due to age or intellectual imcapacity.

    The general explanation of the fall is a religious interpretation, but the actual incident is closer to what you ty to say. However following your line which is primarily intellectual, even if someone is able to see things from all directions and understands the different viewpoints, he/she will still give in for love; this is the nature of our existence as human beings. Therefore, love triangles as described in many dramas are very close to this, and as such, simple to use and understand as examples.

    The justification of dissonances causing trouble is very often intellectual and has logic, but its base is usually emotional, economic or contains political calculation. In other words, immature and/or greedy and irresponsible.

    In one of Father Moon’s speeches he says God originally hoped for the development of attraction between Adam and Eve, waiting for the moment of the height of plus/minus attraction and then releasing them for the clash of love.

    God wanted to be a part of this experience, since it was His motivation and purpose of the making of the entire universe. Therefore he asked them to engage in love upon his approval and engagement.

    If the fall is explained just in Bible verses and not in depth about the nature of creation it can lead to an abstract symphony of logic without deep realization.

    Anyone who hears the fall should be able to visualise an experience in life that matches this experience of the joy and pain of love (if lectured well). To awaken it and guiding it on tracks that leads to realize the original purpose of life is the masterpiece of successful lecturing. E.g., let a beautiful looking lady give this lecture in front of a bunch of boys in their puberty. They may fall in love with her and would do anything she tells them. In this way, women leaders are much more powerful if they use their charm and skills to guide towards a moral society filled with love.

    Sometimes the lecture on the fall leads people to think that love is bad if not directed in a certain one-dimensional direction. Perhaps this is an incomplete understanding. In the end, we always will follow the gravitational power of love. We can trust God that he placed the biggest gravitation at the right spot for us. He just directs us passing other gravitations to meet it at the right time. Just like in the Apollo 13 mission a lot of communication was necessary to guarantee a safe return to earth.

    The actual outcome of our love experience will lead us in our analysis and conclusions you describe.

    Someone who is loved will overcome the frustration if he/she finds the jar empty, but someone who feels unloved may very well smash it.

    • Rohan,

      Thanks for your reflection on my article, which did not attempt to cover the complete motivation for the Fall or how to overcome it in such a short article. I was mainly trying to explain the role that cognitive dissonance plays in human freedom and the Fall, and how that can be seen everywhere in the world today.

      I agree with you that proper love from parents and the community, along with a high social standard being practiced by others, will inculcate habits that would help the child hold onto commandments long enough to mature and escape the Fall. Also to develop a complete presentation of how to create a world in which few people Fall, we have to talk about principles of restoration in both individuals and in society. Again, I would argue that to be effective in reaching people with little knowledge of the Bible, it is helpful to develop lectures that use sociological data and language used in the social sciences.

      Few sociological studies gather the right data, and I think with a good understanding of important concepts like the Fall, emphasis could be placed on studies related to what really leads people to success and fulfillment, rather than the proliferation of studies on things like hate and racism that only look at results of the Fall. For example, many try to correlate academic performance with race, poverty, class size, or school budget, but I believe the primary correlate to academic performance will be the emphasis parents and peers place on it. In fact, that is likely to make all other factors look trivial. Yet our current political discussions try to make all those more trivial factors into the overarching one. Good social science by people who understand the Fall in contemporary academic terms could remedy this and bring an end to much of the childish political discussion that results from such ignorance.

    • I wish our movement understood the significance of un-owned emotion for the role it plays in all human decision making, from the most subtle levels to the most obvious. The challenge for us as we grow is to accept the “reasons” for prescriptions to our inborn self-centeredness. Maturity is really evidence in behavior of our commitment to some form of “community”. It is a social skill of integration. Emotions are at the seat of our sense of self. Hence their compelling nature. Family “instructs” us to the “need” to integrate with “otherness” as experience and as cognitive confrontations. Our “maturity” is evidence of the integration of self with “otherness” as a natural sustainable part of our character, properly engaging and employing our emotions along the way. We call such behavior love.

      Love is really the product of a decision-making process that is fully invested in emotionally as a sustained state of commitment. Thus, emotions not owned or recognized as they affect our decision making process foretells potential disaster.

      We could benefit from that knowledge if we were oriented correctly in our grasp of the significance of emotions to the challenges of spiritual growth and restoration. Fetuses form a “nature” within the mother that is impacted in negative ways. This is how Original Sin is “communicated” generation to generation (which is “why” we need all parents to be “true parents”). As a fetus, it is only capable of a reactionary mode, which later becomes evident in the baby’s behavior. Extreme impacts by mother and environment have resulted in character and emotional challenges that can follow them into adulthood if not identified and compensated for in some healthy way. Scientists are very concerned about the frequency of such challenges these days, but it is the “evidence” of an intergenerational “pathology” we understand as the effect of the fall.

      It disturbs me that the emphasis remains on the sexual component of the fall and not the emotional component that is so significant to the challenges we face in our spiritual growth and resurrection even today. What is worthy of note is that in extreme cases where the baby is in a reactionary mode to the mother in reaction to the experiences as a fetus, “restoration” of the damaged or deviant relationship is being restored by using the principles of Jesus. In a particular therapeutic approach, the mother “repents” by stroking the baby gently over a period of weeks, creating a “new” experience of the mother the baby can “accept”. This changes the nature of the relationship, and as the baby accepts this new experience, is “forgiving” the mother. Neither may really cognitively understand the significance of their participation, but they have employed perfectly the process of restoration.

      Yet, in both, the role of emotions is critical to the outcome and the process. Just as is observable in our movement, emotions continue to thwart our true spiritual growth and many cannot fathom why. It is our emotions not known, owned or regulated. So, our members entertain a decades-long struggle, not cognitively aware of why they struggle. And their cognitive dissonance becomes a way of life. Not what TF had and has in mind.

      We engage our emotions improperly long before we get to the sexual act.

  2. I think this is all true and helpful, but how do you include what the DP refers to as Lucifer’s contribution if you refer to the Fall from mostly the psychological perspective? Some sort of spiritual psychology which is not yet developed? If it’s just psychology alone, doesn’t God bear some responsibility for not anticipating that such psychological immaturity might have some disastrous consequences? I think the archangelic role is a factor that can’t be excluded without leaving some big questions to answer.

    • Alison,

      God bears responsibility as a result of creating freedom and giving human beings responsibility. I think this applies regardless of whether there are or not spiritual entities like angels, which is also an important discussion. I think giving the commandment was God’s portion of responsibility, and whether the temptation came from Lucifer, ignorance, or hormones, children need to stay on a principled path to growth until maturity, because when they aren’t mature and encounter cognitive dissonance, they will attempt to eliminate one of the cognitions rather than seek a principled solution.

      • This sounds like a post-Fall explanation, Gordon. Given the possible “temptations” involved for His children, a “simple” commandment sounds rather like a Las Vegas gamble. I know of no parents who would leave much to chance with their children.

  3. Are there characteristics of the growth stage other than “reaction”?

    The article does point to the need for obedience. Are you saying this is another characteristic of the growth stage?

  4. Robin,

    Children tend to mimmick the behavior of their parents, and commandments are supplemental restraints on reaction, especially when fallen parents might react and children will assume it is adult behavior. I would assume if parents always act with integrity, children will pick that up so that even if not mature and tempted to react, they will be less likely to do so. Obedience is important, and in one of the early publications, TF spoke about three levels of obedience: (1) blind obedience, (2) rational obedience, and (3) obedience of heart. These correspond to three stages of growth.

  5. Gordon,

    I think many of us can relate to your premise here.

    One of the most interesting books I’ve read recently is Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. Walsh, who worked in Hollywood and was the music critic for Time magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, offers a brilliant critique of the Frankfurt School’s neo-Marxist Critical Theory from the perspective of the biblical narrative of the Fall. (I write about Walsh’s book in my AU Blog essay on Cultural Marxism.)

    Walsh’s view of the Fall isn’t completely in accord with DP; however, he gets a great deal correct with regard to the Fall and its ramifications in scriptural, philosophical, social, ideological and cultural contexts. Because he has an understanding of the sexual aspect the Fall, he offers coruscating insights as to how the results of the Fall have wreaked havoc with the human condition. He connects the dots in ways that few contemporary commentators — save Roger Scruton and Paul Kengor — can, precisely because he has a good idea of the “causal” aspect of the Fall and the four fallen natures.

  6. Chris Jordan hits in an important point.

    We make a colossal mistake when we fail to link emotion to reason. I can’t remember who said this (Roger Scruton? Ken Wilber?), but every emotion is, in a way, a judgment (or assessment) wrapped in an integument of affect. If one loves somebody, one judges him/her to be worthy of one’s love, if one hates somebody, one judges him/her to be deserving of one’s hate, if one fears somebody, one judges the he/she is dangerous in some way, and so on through all the emotions. These judgments (assessments) do not simply accompany one’s emotions, they are essential to them, and cannot be analytically separated from each other, as though they were only contingently connected, (although they can be distinguished from the affective dimension). We shouldn’t think that emotions are just surges through the mind and body — merely pure affect.

    When someone commits a crime of passion we often say that the person “lost their mind” or acted “unreasonably.” In other words, there was a momentary imbalance, or separation of emotion and reason. Moses struck the rock twice by letting his emotions (indignation) get the best of him in the moment.

    Reason helps us assess/judge the truth or falseness of the judgments at the heart of an emotion, and pronounce an emotion to be appropriate or inappropriate, misguided and so on. That’s why the “Course and Motivation of the Human Fall”, as Chris mentions, is perhaps more important that the actual act.

    Our will/behavior is predicated on what we feel and know (emotion and intellect) and knowing what is morally and ethically principled is a hedge against inappropriate emotions that can lead us into unprincipled actions. Our cultural surroundings also play into how we assess things and an immoral culture surely breeds immoral behavior.

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