Cognitive Dissonance and Test Failure
“Can you buy a beer, bring it into class, and open it when I give you the signal?”
It was the psychology professor in a Master’s class that privately asked me that question. What else could I do other than say “sure.” He then coached me a little on what to say.
When he gave me the signal, I pulled the beer out of my book bag, popped the top, and acted like I was taking a sip. Some people complained, but the professor dismissed them saying, it was OK. They then attacked me, but I also acted like this was normal behavior, and besides “it’s only a beer.” A couple of my friends (who were not in on the demo) came to my defense, also saying “it’s only a beer.”
After about five minutes (just as one person was starting to walk out of the class), the professor let people know that I did it at his request. He was trying to demonstrate cognitive dissonance.
However, even after he explained that he set this up, people still had their heels dug in. They were still upset with me that I did it and seemed to dismiss the fact that I did it in response to a request from the professor.
Later, a couple of my friends admitted that they were unlikely to defend the action if someone else popped a beer in class. However, to reduce the conflict of unacceptable behavior by a friend, they rationalized the behavior and even defended it.
Leon Festinger defined cognitive dissonance as the mental discomfort or stress that occurs from holding two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time. When people become uncomfortable due to an inconsistency, they typically try to reduce the discomfort. For example, they may:
- Avoid situations that remind them of the inconsistency (even if that means walking out of a college class).
- Dismiss facts that would otherwise increase the inconsistency (such as someone popping a beer at the professor’s request).
In other words, when people latch onto one belief, idea, or value, they tend to either avoid or reject anything that contradicts it.
A recent article in Scientific American reminded me of this concept. I love the way it starts.
“Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs, they always change their minds? Me neither.”
The good news is that the concept helps answer a question that I’ve been struggling with over the past year.
Cognitive Dissonance and Security+
I hear from people almost every day telling me that they’ve passed the Security+ exam the first time they took it using the CompTIA Security+: Get Certified Get Ahead: SY0-401 Study Guide and/or online Security+ study packages.
Occasionally, I hear from people telling me that they used the online Security+ study resources, consistently scored over the 90% recommended score, but failed the exam. However, when I look at their online scores, it’s clear that they weren’t consistently scoring over the 90% recommended score, and often weren’t even getting passing scores on all the quizzes.
Even when I point this out, some people ignore the facts and instead complain about something external to themselves.
Why the inconsistency?
Why is that people ignore the facts that they can easily verify themselves?
Cognitive dissonance seems to be the clear answer. Some people have a high regard for their knowledge and skills. When they fail this exam, they ignore the recorded facts shown in their scores and blame CompTIA, the testing center, the study material, the Northern Lights, or something else.
Countering Cognitive Dissonance
What can I do if a test taker is experiencing cognitive dissonance? It turns out that I should just continue doing what I have been doing – stick to the facts. When I get these types of emails, I typically include this in my response.
When people fail the exam after using the online resources, I typically see one or more of the following issues:
- They haven’t used all of the online resources.
- They aren’t getting passing scores (84% minimum, 90% recommended) on the critical quizzes.
- Their quiz timings indicate they have memorized the questions and answers.
“You might like to check out this FAQ: Am I Ready?”
I then point out the facts such as:
- No scores for some of the critical quizzes.
- Low scores for some of the critical quizzes.
- Time taken to complete some quizzes (such as spending less than 20 seconds per question).
Some people accept these facts, modify their study habits, and let me know later that they’ve passed the exam. Some people respond with a complaint and I never hear from them again.
I don’t feel so bad though. The MythBusters come up against this all the time. Even when they use science to bust myths such as the photos from the NASA moon landing are obviously fake, people still don’t accept the facts.