Cognitive Dissonance LO26484

From: Alan Cotterell (
Date: 04/04/01

Just thought the forum would like the following article:

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance relates to an individual’s inability to
accept new information. There is a threshold of resistance to be overcome,
due to their cognition or ‘world view’, which has been built up over their

Bizarre behaviour, can be exhibited by people, who find their position
untenable on some matters. In extreme cases, psychiatric patients have
even been unable to actually hear particular words associated with their

The following example of cognitive dissonance cost millions of lives, as
it led to World War 1. We experience cognitive dissonance in our daily
lives, let us hope it never has such an effect again.

The Sarajevo Crisis followed the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg
Empire and his wife by a young Serbian nationalist.

The incident, which occurred in the capital of Bosnia, involved a group of
conspirators acting with the prior knowledge and material assistance of
the Serbian government and its General Staff.

At first it appeared that the crisis would abate. By late July 1914,
however, tension had mounted following an Austrian ultimatum to Serbia. As
in the Bosnian Crisis of 1908 – 1909, Germany stood by its ally. Unlike
the earlier period, however, France supported Russia; the latter in its
turn agreed to aid Serbia in the event of an Austrian attack.

A complicated series of partial and full mobilisations, declarations of
war, and movements across national frontiers in late July and early August
finally involved five of the six European major powers in a general

Japan, the only Asian major power in the system, declared war against
Germany and Austria-Hungary a few weeks later. Italy followed suit in
1915, as did the United States in 1917.

The World War 1 mobilisation plans were based on the assumption that the
advantage lay with the offense and that speed was of the essence. European
leaders believed that a one to three day lead in mobilisation would be
militarily significant for the course of the war, leaving those who
delayed vulnerable against their better prepared adversaries.

These perceptions created enormous incentives to strike first, which
placed a premium on rapid mobilisation plans, and which in turn required
detailed advance planning. The entire process would be conducted by rail,
and general staffs had been working for years to perfect their timetables.
Thus the railroad timetables became exceedingly complex and left little
margin for error.

In countries such as Russia, the whole plan of mobilisation was worked out
ahead to its end in all its details. When the moment was chosen, one had
only to press the button, and the whole state would begin to function
automatically with the precision of a clock’s mechanism.

The direct link between mobilisation and war was particularly compelling
in the German Case. The German Schlieffen Plan, was designed in response
to the threat of a two front war, called for a holding action against
Russia in the East while the bulk of the German Forces were directed
against France in the West.

Chief of Staff von Schlieffen recognizing the strength of the French
forces along the Alsace – Lorraine frontier and entranced by Hannibal’s
double envelopment of the Romans at Cannae, concluded that the French
could be quickly defeated only by an enveloping movement through Belgium.
But any advance through Belgium required the seizure of Leige, an
absolutely vital railway junction.

The seizure of Leige had to be quick and surgical, so as not to destroy
its vital tunnels and bridges. This required ‘meticulous preparation and
surprise’ and had to be achieved before Liege could be reinforced, and
thus immediately after declaration of war if not before. Complicating this
was the fact that the railway lines required that four German armies, over
840,000 men, had to be routed through a single junction at Aachen.

Because mobilisation was a tightly coupled system in which many discrete
elements had to mesh with perfect timing, no change or improvisation was
perceived as possible during mobilisation. Any delay in German
mobilisation might jeopardise the rapid defeat of France that was
perceived to be essential in a two front war. Some have argued however,
that strategically sound alternatives to the Schlieffen Plan did exist,
and that Germany could have directed her offensive to the East in a
Russo-German war if such action were warranted by political conditions.

The development of German military plans without regard for political
considerations had enormous consequences. The problem of civilian lack of
understanding of military matters is compounded if the military is unaware
of this ignorance. Admiral Tirpitz tells of how ‘horror-stricken’ he and
Chief of Staff Moltke were to discover that political authorities had been
unaware of the plan to seize Liege, and observed that the ‘political
leadership had completely lost its head’.

Cognitive theory suggests that individuals are more responsive to new
information which supports their preexisting beliefs than to information
that contradicts it, and consequently there is a tendency to discount
warnings that military plans are inadequate.

This ‘irrational consistency’ also leads policymakers to fail to recognise
the existence of conflicting objectives and the need to make value
trade-offs among them, resulting in a tendency to inflate both the value
of the objectives and policy aims to achieve them, and the probability of
success. At the same time both the likelihood of negative outcomes and
their costs are minimised.

There is also a tendency for policymakers to become convinced not only
that their plan is on balance superior to alternatives, but that it is
superior in every possible respect.

This is perhaps one explanation for German insensitivity in 1914 to the
likelihood and cost of British intervention, given the perceived necessity
of the rapid defeat of France through an invasion of Belgium.

Even more important in reinforcing commitment to existing plans is the
cognitive phenomenon of post-decision rationalising or bolstering, which
Festinger (1957) attempts to explain in his theory of cognitive

To satisfy a cognitive need to justify their actions, individuals tend
subsequently to modify their perceptions and beliefs and ‘spread apart’
the earlier alternatives – upgrading the perceived benefits and
diminishing the perceived costs of the alternatives they have chosen,
while doing the opposite for those they rejected. This increases the
threshold of new information required to trigger a change in preference
and hence increases resistance to policy change.

These tendencies undoubtedly solidified commitments to the Schlieffen Plan
and other military plans in 1914. The rest is history, however the fact
that the Australian Defence Force has adopted Australian Standard AS4360 –
Risk Management for its operations may comfort some people.


Choices in World Politics Sovereignty and Interdependence
Russett, Starr, Stoll
Publisher: W.H. Freeman and Company
41 Madison Avenue, New York
ISBN 0-7167-2018-3


"Alan Cotterell" <>

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