The struggle is real. A look at cognitive dissonance at the table

By reading this article, you will:

  • Learn the two parts of Cognitive Dissonance
  • Learn about Social Psychologist, Leon Festinger
  • Be given tips on how to utilize this theory

I remember the first time it happened to my son. He was playing Skyrim and had his bow drawn. He was just learning the in’s and out’s of the game and up until this point, he had only been firing upon ‘bad guys’. He had just left the starting cave when he came upon a rabbit. I could see the wheels in his head spinning as his brain was figuring out the levity of the situation.

If you play role-playing games, I think you can see what is about to happen. As gamers, we know this feeling all to well. As for my son, he is deciding if he should attack the rabbit. He is negotiating his moral compass against the knowledge that he is just playing a game. This is called cognitive dissonance.

‘Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc.’ (1). The struggle is real. Literally. His brain is trying to reconcile two incompatible ideas. In his situation, my son believes these two statements:

  • I want to express my power
  • I am a good guy

He toiled for a second, mumbling to himself. Ultimately, he took the shot and missed. He reconciled the dissonance, but then immediately went to town and attacked a guard. Then died.

This illustrates the second part of Cognitive Dissonance. Social Psychologist, Leon Festinger, wrote in his book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957)(2), that humans strive to reduce the discomfort of dissonance in four ways:

  1. Change a behavior (I will not kill rabbits again)
  2. Justify by changing standards (It was just a stupid rabbit/it’s just a game)
  3. Justify by making up for it (I will kill more bad guys to balance the scales)
  4. Ignore or deny conflicting information (I didn’t even kill the rabbit)

So, how do we use this to become a better gamer? Here are some tips:

  1. Be aware of when a video game or role-playing game puts you into a moral quandary (The ending of any Fable game; any game wherein you are deciding who lives and dies, role playing games that thematically push you down a clear path just to yank you the other way).
  2. Become aware that most of the ways humans reconcile the mental stress of dissonance is to rationalize. Which is just lying to one’s self and others
  3. If you are a GM in a table top game, take note of which elements of game play the players enjoy the most. Highlight those elements, but show them the ugly side of it, too. For example, if the party just slew an entire encampment of Orcs and saved the day, have the local townies seem unimpressed or even unhappy that the players are above the law. Another example could be that a player is searching for her only sister after their parents were killed. Instead of having the long-lost sister welcome the reunion, have her yell ‘Why are you still chasing me? Can’t you see I don’t love you!’

So, that is a quick lesson on Cognitive Dissonance. If you find yourself using this to add complications to your Dungeon and Dragons or PBtA game, feel free to leave a comment.



(2) Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press


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