Conversations about the religious and spiritual life on the other side of fundamentalism
029: Cognitive Dissonance and Faith Transition

029: Cognitive Dissonance and Faith Transition

ATF-genericThe theory of Cognitive Dissonance is a well-established concept in the field of psychology that explains why we all experience discomfort and anxiety when we are exposed to new ideas and beliefs or engage in behavior that conflict with our pre-existing views, ideals, and beliefs. I’ve been extremely interested in producing an episode of A Thoughtful Faith that could explore the concept of Cognitive Dissonance as it relates to an LDS faith crisis / faith transition. When the opportunity came to produce a collaborative episode with the wonderful Nathasha Helfer Parker at the Mormon Mental Health Podcast, this seemed like a really good fit for both audiences. So, I couldn’t be more thrilled about sharing this discussion with Natasha Helfer Parker and the amazing Jennifer Finlayson-Fife.

Both Natasha Helfer Parker and Jennifer Finlayson-Fife are active Latter-Day Saints, as well as marriage and family therapists. Natasha and Jennifer each have experience with treating Mormon individuals and couples, and have observed the function of Cognitive Dissonance as it pertains to Mormon culture and ideals. Please visit their respective websites below.

In the first part of this episode we explore the clinical definition of Cognitive Dissonance, including some of the history behind the theory, as well as common examples from day-t0-day life. Afterwards, we transition into how understanding Cognitive Dissonance can be useful in understanding and navigating faith transitions and crises. We hope you enjoy, and please share your thoughts and comments with us below. Thanks again to Natasha and Jennifer for sharing their experience and expertise with me and our audience.


Shaken Faith Syndrome by Michael Ash
FAIR presentation by Michael Ash
TED Talk about Cognitive Dissonance
FAIR presentation addressing Cognitive Dissonance by LDS psychologist Wendy Ulrich

Nathasha Helfer Parker’s Website
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife’s Website


  1. Troy Morrell

    Sorry, a bit long, but…

    I listened to a thoughtful faith podcast on the topic of Cognitive Dissonance with the good doctors Helfer-Parker and Finlayson-Fife today. I’ve always enjoyed these thoughtful, intelligent people and their refreshing take on Mormon issues, especially sexuality, but this podcast really crawled under my skin for some reason. Maybe I just had a bad day or something. To start off, I enjoyed much of it, especially the mind science of cognitive dissonance. The podcast was running along smoothly and the discussion was leading to the point that the faith crisis is discussed. Dr. Fife then explained that those who stay in the church and take the fall as the immoral and broken member who can never be good enough and the member who leaves the church are both dealing with their cognitive dissonance in a “less honest, more maladjusted manner.”

    Specifically, at about minute 48:00 she says:

    “I think the more honestly you grapple with those discrepancies [in the truth claims, historical issues], the more adaptively you navigate them.” She continues, “Because you can sort of reduce the dissonance in a simple-minded way, but dishonest way, and reduce anxiety quickly, but then maladaptively. So for example, if your ‘who you think you are’ and ‘what you claim as an ideal’ are discrepant, like we said, it can, you can…you can make this all about me, ‘I’m the failure, ya know, I’m the loser because I haven’t been able to make this work.’ Or the other way you can do it is say ‘it’s all about my ideals, it’s all about the church,’ for example. So let’s say you believe you should be chaste until marriage and then you are not, well, then, a dishonest way of resolving that would just be to say ‘well the church isn’t true obviously because I don’t want to think of myself as a failure and therefore I’ll just give up the framework completely.’ And so those are both dishonest, what I would think of as dishonest, ways of managing the discrepancy for at least some people, because they are not taking into account the other data that pushes them to sorta face something that they don’t want to face. So for the person that wants to make it all about themselves, their maybe too anxious about dealing with that the framework may not be perfect, that the framework may not be able to answer all things for me, and I would rather see myself as a failure than rather have to challenge the framework that has guided my life, so I will take the hit. Or the person who says that ‘I just want to give up the framework completely because it’s too uncomfortable for me to think of myself as having failed at something that I value, so I’m going to just going to manage it by saying I no longer value it.’ And, I’m not saying that people can’t change what they value, obviously, but am I approaching that honestly or am I doing it reactively, but maladaptively.”

    The discussion went on to points about apostates being as black and white in their thinking as many TBMs, and that “the same black and white, sucker’s choice that caused them to leave Mormonism still, they still use it in their ongoing ways of structuring their reality, and so kind of in a funny way, it’s like you can take the Mormon out of the church but sometimes you can’t take the church out of the Mormon.”

    First, I feel that it is valid for anyone to leave the church, for any reason, and that saying that it is “dishonest” or “maladaptive” to leave so without first trying to reframe one’s faith in a way that works for them is dismissive and arrogant (related to pride, in the theological sense). In my experience with apostates, many leave the church without spending a whole lot of time trying to nuance their beliefs. This might be painful for members like Dr. Finlayson-Fife to realize, but many folks don’t value the church as much as she does, and it feels very dismissive to her own worldview. It doesn’t mean that her worldview is correct, and it doesn’t mean that those folks are dishonest.

    I agree that there are a lot of black and white thinkers among the apostates, but there are many who are comfortable in the grey areas, too. It just happens that the apostate’s grey areas fall outside the bounds of church membership.

    On that note, I would even argue that the panelists on this podcast have actually left the same church that I left. The one where there is belief in a literal global flood and a real human population of Nephites and Lamanites buried in the soil of the Americas, that polyandry was a commandment given at the point of a flaming sword to the prophet, and where women are divinely attributed to be nothing more than mothers and wives in the home. That these panelists hold temple recommends and callings in the church while having a “nuanced” belief structure might actually cause a lot of black and white thinkers, apostate and TBM alike, to say that they are actually the dishonest and maladjusted ones. But I wouldn’t go that far. I am a “grey area” thinker, after all.

    1. Micah Nickolaisen

      Hi Troy. Very valid points and criticisms here. I won’t speak for Jennifer, but I don’t think either she or myself were trying to paint with as broad of a brush as you may have perceived. Speaking to my own remarks, I want to express that I was simply trying (perhaps unsuccessfully) to frame out what I see as the extremes where dangerous black-and-white thinking can be manifested in both the TBMs and the PostMos. So let me clarify here by saying that I echo your experience with “apostates” (still don’t like that word :)), in that most people who leave the Church do so for valid reasons, and I would argue that for most their departure is actually due in large part to their ability to break away from the black-and-white paradigm that we discussed in the podcast. The observation I expressed was never intended to be indicative of all Post/Ex Mormons, and to the extent that my remarks gave that impression, I sincerely apologize.

      As for your last paragraph, spot on. My hope is that through efforts like this podcast and other similar ventures we will be able to carve out a space in mainstream (pardon the irony of that word choice) LDS culture. But yes, in many ways the Mormonism I personally subscribe to is perceived as dishonest and invalid by both the TBMs and the apostates. And actually, I hope this tension might help you see the often uncomfortable and challenging position we are in here. Personally I want to make sure that we respectfully demonstrate the value Mormonism can offer, while at the same time not being dismissive or invalidating toward both the TBMs and the PostMos.

    2. Kris Keeney

      Wow; I listened to the same podcast, and heard it very differently. I heard these 2 ladies basically say this: “we don’t know all the answers, its ok to not know all the answers, we are not judging anyone from a theistic perspective, but we can shed light on our motivations and adaptive tools from a psychological perspective,” or thereabouts. Nothing but positive, uplifting, and hopefulness-enhancing. Kris Keeney, Richmond, VA. Dedicated, fallible LDS Member, tired and mid-life crisis-beholden’ed lawyer, still-learning-on-the-job husband and father…

  2. Troy Morrell

    Alright, Micah, now I have to offer up a kinder response.

    I recognize that this is a podcast for the faithful, and don’t want to leave the impression that the more nuanced believers aren’t in a valid place. I feel very impressed by those who can restructure their faith and remain active in the church, especially because of their impact on those very black and white thinkers within the church. I am probably off base in stating that Dr. Finlayson-Fife was being dismissive of those who leave the church. After reconsidering, I think she was simply trying to vocalize an encouragement to those with bonging dissonance and suggesting a more constructive approach to dealing with a faith crisis, rather than leaping to conclusions, whether self-abusive/destructive, or dismissive of the institution in its entirety. My error was forgetting the scope and audience of this podcast. My apologies.

    1. Hi Troy,
      Thanks for your comments. When I listened to the podcast after it was recorded, I wondered if people might hear exactly the section you quoted in the way that you did (at first at least)—namely, that people who leave the church or re-work their values are being dishonest. Just to be clear, I absolutely do not feel that way. I believe people can leave or stay for honest reasons, and leave or stay for dishonest reasons. The goal in my mind is integrity in the process and that it will lead to different outcomes for all of us. And simple judgment on another person’s decision (particularly if it is different from our own) is a function of our own immaturity and need to see the world simplistically. I think you see it similarly, I just wanted to clarify my own perspective on it. Thanks again for your thoughts on the matter.

  3. Kevin

    A terrific podcast here, folks–one of lasting value that I will refer my friends to. As I listened it hit me with sudden thump of memory that I had experienced cognitive dissonance in a High Priests group meeting several years ago. I was living in Idaho and we were being asked by our high council representative to step up and man the phones in support of Prop 8 in California. I was astonished at the cheerful, earnest boosterism for something that didn’t seem very Christlike and at the very least smelled like it was going to be on the wrong side of history. I didn’t want to create a scene so I quietly agreed to participate. As I did I thought to myself, “This must be what if felt like for the guy who agreed to guide the handcart company that started terminally late in the season.” What a relief that we weren’t called up for the task.

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  6. A very welcome discussion, very well done. A tip of the hat to all three of you for bringing to the table a topic that is essential for all of us to understand. If only people would be willing to discuss these issues in church! Can you imagine how much more accepting of a community we could be toward each other?

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