Cognitive Dissonance, Halo Effects, and the Self-Esteem Trap

Daniel S. Levine

My first article in this journal hinted that a dynamical systems perspective, combined with insights from experimental psychology, can yield new insights for psychotherapy. From this perspective I will suggest that simply seeking to raise the client’s global self-esteem, which is one of the commonest goals of therapy, is only sometimes a good thing to do. Specifically, there are certain contexts and certain stages in the client’s life at which raising self-esteem may be a bad idea.

To illustrate this seemingly outlandish idea, let me tell a Jewish-American story. A middle-aged man whom I will call Mendel was ready to move from one apartment to another, when it started snowing. He fretted about how he’d move all his stuff in the snow, until he remembered his friend Goldberg had a sled and he could try to borrow it. So he walked to Goldberg's place and kept asking himself: "But what if Goldberg won’t lend me his sled?" He thought of all the things he had done for Goldberg: helped him get started in business, helped his daughter through college, et cetera. This got him angrier and angrier at the possibility that Goldberg might not lend him his sled. So when Mendel finally rang Goldberg’s bell, after the door opened he said: "Goldberg! You and your rattle-trap sled can go to hell!"

What is going on, psychologically, with Mendel in this story? He is engaging in self-sabotaging behavior but not suffering from low self-esteem. Recent studies (1) have suggested that this combination is fairly common. Like many other people in a variety of work and personal situations, Mendel felt sure that the good things he had done made him deserve a favor from another person, but at the same time felt anxious about whether that other person would grant him the favor. In other words, he felt learned helplessness in one dimension (ability to get what he wanted) but not in another dimension (merit of his own past actions). Learned helplessness (2) is often thought of as a condition that people either have or don’t have. But there is abundant evidence that the same person at the same time can be helpless in one context and quite confident in another. For example, I exhibit some symptoms of learned helplessness when it comes to social dancing but am confident in doing mathematics problems, and for many people I know the reverse is true.

A person who can handle one situation well but not another tends to experience discomfort from cognitive dissonance (3) about his or her self-image. Cognitive dissonance refers to the ability of a person to simultaneously hold at least two opinions or beliefs that are logically or psychologically inconsistent. In some cases the believer is aware of the contradiction. In other cases he or she is only conscious of the two beliefs separately, in different contexts. Also, people feel cognitive dissonance when they have performed actions that are inconsistent with their conscious beliefs. Leon Festinger, who developed this concept, further proposed that dissonance is psychologically uncomfortable; recently this has been confirmed by physiological measures such as galvanic skin response (4). People who feel dissonance tend to try to reduce the dissonance by changing either one of their beliefs or their actions.

The sled joke leads me to coin a new term for a specific psychological condition based on cognitive dissonance. I define Goldberg Sled Syndrome (GSS) as cognitive dissonance based on (a) high self-esteem combined with (b) frustration about inability to get what one wants from others. In our competitive society it wouldn’t surprise me if a clear majority of people suffer from GSS at some time or other. Laid back scholars are particularly prone to it, but it’s probably common among hard working, honest, underpaid people in many walks of life, including single black mothers working at Taco Bell and union machinists. People trained in business or law might have it less often, because they tend to assume based on their training that a good "product" can translate into "sales."

Since GSS is an example of cognitive dissonance, people try to relieve it by the usual methods of dissonance reduction. The three methods that best come to mind are (a) reduce one’s self-esteem (either by negative self-talk or by working less and therefore accomplishing less); (b) increase one’s ability to negotiate in the real world; or (c) decide that lack of certain external rewards doesn’t matter much. Alternative (c) can be effective at times but is counterproductive when one's goals are public, like getting ideas published so they can read by others or increasing one’s salary so one can pay a child’s college tuition. Alternative (b) is the most desirable, usually. Mainstream therapy sometimes focuses on (b) in the form of assertion training. But assertion training often has a flaw: it tends to neglect the ethical dimension of concern for the other person’s happiness. This suggests that a major goal of therapy should be to develop more up-to-date, socially conscious, less individualistic methods of assertion training. Because of the desire to reduce dissonance, if (b) and (c) fail, people fall naturally into (a) and reduce their effectiveness, as harmful as that obviously is.

Mainstream therapy often deals with many forms of emotional discomfort by trying to increase self-esteem. This clearly may not be a good idea if the client has delusions of grandeur or paranoid ideations. Less obviously, the same is true in the case of GSS. This is because increasing self-esteem without also dealing with the person’s negotiation strategies can actually increase his or her cognitive dissonance and so aggravate the problem! Many therapists confuse GSS with low self-esteem. That confusion arises, I believe, from another effect described by experimental psychologists: the halo effect studied by Solomon Asch (5). The halo effect means that if you see a person doing well under one criterion, that casts a "halo" that will make you rate him or her highly on other, related criteria. So by extension, a person not doing well in one domain is assumed not to be doing well in others. Probably many GSSers had low self-esteem in the past but then overcame it after some accomplishment they were proud of. But GSS itself is one or two levels in Maslow’s hierarchy above self-esteem deficiency, and the two conditions shouldn’t be confused by applying the same remedies to both.

If neither self-esteem boosting nor "classical" assertion training helps GSS sufferers, what does? I’m not sure but intuitively feel that it’s best treated collectively more often than individually. In a clinical setting, that suggests "GSS groups." Outside, the 1970s growth of feminist consciousness raising groups can be seen as GSS women banding together to help each other assert themselves in ways that could benefit all of them. The Saul Alinsky brand of radicalism did this in a different way for GSS poor people. There are numerous other good examples of support groups for people sharing all sorts of problems. But still we tend in the United States to individualize problems that are partly societal in nature, and need to do that less.

The example of GSS is an illustration of two broader truths about our mental and emotional lives that the dynamical systems outlook (see Psychline, Volume 1, No. 2) brings to the fore. One truth is that our mental competence can be divided into many categories, all of them interacting but partly autonomous. Another is that our capability in any one of these categories is a dynamic variable that changes (possibly up and down) in the lifetime of any individual and with context. These two statements may sound like cliches but have wider implications. In therapy, they help squelch the widespread myth, criticized by the humanist psychotherapist Roger Walsh (6), that there is a norm called "mature adult functioning," that the goal of therapy is to break barriers toward reaching this norm, and that growth basically ceases once the norm is reached. Fully integrating the dynamic viewpoint promotes a therapy that deals with people's full humanity and encourages lifelong emotional and mental growth.


(1) Berglas, Stephen and Baumeister, Roy F. (1993). Your Own Worst Enemy: Understanding the Paradox of Self-Defeating Behavior. New York: Basic.

(2) Seligman, Martin E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

(3) Festinger, Leon (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

(4) Croyle, Robert T. and Cooper, Joel (1983). Dissonance arousal: Physiological evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 782-791.

(5) Asch, Solomon E. (1946). Forming impressions of personality. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 41, 258-290.

(6) Walsh, Roger (1992). The search for synthesis: Transpersonal psychology and the meeting of East and West, psychology and religion, personal and transpersonal. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 32, 10-45.