Cognitive Dissonance


This is a reflection on a cognitive dissonance demonstration based on the video called “Incredible Shade Illusion!” published to YouTube on August 11, 2011, by the channel “brusspup”.


After watching the video and seeing the demonstration, I was convinced that the square in question was white, when in fact it was proven to be grey.  It seems that I prevented myself from thinking critically because I was holding on to my previous beliefs about the standard checkerboard.  My brain apparently held on to my beliefs and assumptions about checkerboards to the point that I couldn’t look for another solution to the problem. I even started rationalising my belief to justify my thoughts.  The quote by Franz Fanon provided during the demonstration explained my reaction perfectly, when he said “sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong…deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief”.  Another example provided in class was the full moon.  My wife is a healthcare worker and having discussed this with her, she truly believes that the hospital gets crazy on a full moon.  I’ve heard that notion repeatedly throughout life and I myself have always thought there was something to it.  Even when we were provided with evidence and facts that categorically refutes the notion that hospitals are any more busy during a full moon, I still thought that there might be something to it.  This is cognitive dissonance in action.  


This started me thinking about how cognitive dissonance is a barrier to learning in my teaching.  I spent a good deal of time reflecting on students in the occupational health and safety (OHS) program and how cognitive dissonance might be preventing them from learning to the best of their ability.  There is one fairly specific situation, though highly relevant to my program, that I believe cognitive dissonance is apparent.  The situation revolves around sponsored Qatari students.  Being sponsored means that the students have already been hired by an organization and are being paid a full-time salary to attend school (in addition to having their school paid for).  These students have a job reserved for them at graduation and their next step when returning to the organization is often applying for further education to complete a degree in the U.K.  

This causes an issue with respect to the accredited curriculum that we have embedded into our diploma program.  The accredited curriculum is the NEBOSH International General Certificate (IGC) in OHS and requires taking some extra time to study for the certification exams, which are voluntary and require an additional fee to be paid by the student.  The reason that we decided to embed this certification into our curriculum is because it is seen as a minimum entry requirement to employment in the field of OHS in Doha.  It is a major benefit to our non-national, non-sponsored students to graduate with this certificate as it increases their employability substantially – and these students often times find it quite difficult to find a job.  The sponsored Qatari students do not believe that they need this extra certification, are not interested in learning the material related to the certification, and do not want to spend the extra time studying for a voluntary exam that they are not planning to write.

I started investigating whether or not this was a concern elsewhere.  Sure enough, Cheng and Hsu (2012) investigated this very issue with business students at Tainan University of Technology in Taiwan.  As a result of a highly competitive job market in Taiwan, universities have begun to promote opportunities for students to obtain additional certificates throughout their formal education.  Some students, however, never intend to achieve certification which has resulted in questions about how to increase their motivation to pursue this goal.  They investigated how responsibility for consequences affect attitude change.  A survey measured the students’ initial attitudes towards certification examinations.  Choosing a sample of students with the most negative attitudes toward certification, a sample of students were randomly assigned to one of three groups.  Each group was provided with an introductory abstract about certification exams. The abstract for the first group emphasized feeling fully responsible for poor job performance related to failure to obtain business certification.  The abstract for the second group framed the outcome of poor job performance in the context of both personal and external factors.  The abstract for the third group stressed minimal personal responsibility for poor job performance related to failure to obtain certification.  Then all the students were asked to complete the initial survey again.  It was found that, “the attitudes of participants who received the abstract emphasizing personal responsibility for the consequences associated with taking the certification examination changed more than those of participants who received an abstract that did not have this emphasis” (p. 1108).  The results were consistent with cognitive dissonance theory.


I found the idea of personal responsibility helping to overcome cognitive dissonance among students writing certification examinations incredibly appealing and relevant to my teaching in the OHS diploma program – especially as it relates to sponsored Qatari students.  I will begin to adopt ways of stressing personal responsibility for job performance related to obtaining certification.  This may be by way of our introductory materials to our certification examinations.  It can also be done throughout the program, by integrating a sense of personal responsibility during some of the major topics.  For instance, when I teach about scaffolds, I can use an example of a safety officer that was fined and jailed in Doha as a result of workplace accident involving a scaffold.  I can make connections to the importance of learning about scaffolds and why it might be a good idea to be certified in this domain.  I will definitely continue to develop ways of enhancing a sense of personal responsibility for job performance in relation to being certified, particularly for our sponsored Qatari students, in hopes of relieving some of the cognitive dissonance towards these examinations at the moment.


Cheng, P.Y., Hsu, P.K., (2012).  Cognitive dissonance theory and certification examination: The role of responsiblity.  Social Behaviour and Personality, 40(7), 1103-1112