“The consciousness in you and the consciousness in me, apparently two,
really one, seek unity and that is love.”
― NISARGADATTA MAHARAJ
What Is Cognitive Dissonance? The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so this conflict causes feelings of unease or discomfort. This inconsistency between what people believe and how they behave motivates people to engage in actions that will help minimize feelings of discomfort. People attempt to relieve this tension in different ways, such as by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding new information.
Cognitive dissonance—a mental conflict that occurs when your beliefs don’t line up with your actions. “It’s an uncomfortable state of mind when someone has contradictory values, attitudes, or perspectives about the same thing,” says psychiatrist Grant H. Brenner MD, FAPA, co-founder of Neighborhood Psychiatry, in Manhattan. “The degree of discomfort varies with the subject matter, as well as with how well the person copes with self contradiction.”
It’s an uncomfortable state of mind when someone has contradictory values, attitudes, or perspectives about the same thing. The degree of discomfort varies with the subject matter, as well as with how well the person copes with self-contradiction. One example is a smoker who knows all too well that nicotine causes lung cancer but takes puff after puff anyway to ease his anxiety in the moment—and then feels a sense of shame. There’s some sort of discrepancy between what your values are and what you feel in that moment.
Situations where cognitive dissonance can occur include:
Smoking despite being aware of the adverse health effects of tobacco use.
Choosing to promote a behavior, such as regular exercise, that a person does not themselves practice. This type of cognitive dissonance is called hypocrisy.
History of Cognitive Dissonance: Leon Festinger first proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance centered on how people try to reach internal consistency. He suggested that people have an inner need to ensure that their beliefs and behaviors are consistent. Inconsistent or conflicting beliefs lead to disharmony, which people strive to avoid. In his 1957 book, "A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance," Festinger explained, "Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads toward activity oriented toward hunger-reduction. It is a very different motivation from what psychologists are used to dealing with but, as we shall see, nonetheless powerful."
How to recognize cognitive dissonance:
Cognitive dissonance is natural, and everyone goes through varying degrees of dissonance on a daily basis, depending on the different situations we find ourselves in and the beliefs being challenged. Often, the degree of dissonance is so insignificant that our minds resolve it without us being remotely aware that we were experiencing cognitive dissonance. Sometimes, however, the feeling of discomfort becomes strong enough that you become aware that something is not right, even if you might not recognize that you are experiencing cognitive dissonance.
So, how can you tell with certainty when you are experiencing cognitive dissonance? Below are some
common signs that signify dissonance:
Feeling squeamish or uncomfortable: Have you ever felt an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach right before or right after doing something or making a decision? More often than not, this is a sign that you are experiencing cognitive dissonance.
Conflict avoidance: Some people don’t like conflicts or confrontations at all. When faced with a potential confrontational situation, they choose the path of least resistance, which is to avoid the conflict. Conflict avoidance can also be a sign of cognitive dissonance. Instead of facing the situation, they decide to avoid the mental anguish associated with the conflict.
Ignoring the facts: Another sure sign of cognitive dissonance is ignoring the facts and making decisions that are wrong from a rational point of view. For instance, an obese person may continue consuming junk food even when they have been warned by the doctor that it will have adverse effects on their health.
Rationalization: If you make a decision and then find yourself convincing yourself that you made the right decision, that right there is an indicator of cognitive dissonance.
FOMO: This is known as the fear of missing out. How many times have you ended up going up to the club with your friends when you know that you should be saving that money? The fear of missing out causes you to do something that is against your belief in order to look cool or to impress your friends. That is cognitive dissonance right there.
Shame: When we do something that goes against our beliefs, especially our personal beliefs, we end up with a feeling of shame. Even after trying to rationalize what you did, you still feel remorse for it and may even want to hide your choices or actions from other people.
Guilt: Doing something that is against your beliefs is also often accompanied by feelings of guilt. You feel that you messed up, that you should have done something else instead. The cognitive dissonance before such an action is usually signified by anxiety right before the action, followed by guilt after the action is done. This is usually followed by justification as you try to alleviate the guilt.
What Are The Effects of Cognitive Dissonance? Cognitive dissonance can make people feel uneasy and uncomfortable, particularly if the disparity between their beliefs and behaviors involves something that is central to their sense of self. For example, behaving in ways that are not aligned with your personal values may result in intense feelings of discomfort. Your behavior contradicts not just the beliefs you have about the world, but also the beliefs that you have about yourself. This discomfort can manifest itself in a variety of ways. People may feel:
Cognitive dissonance can even influence how people feel about and view themselves, leading to negative feelings of self-esteem and self-worth. Because people want to avoid this discomfort, cognitive dissonance can have a wide range of effects. Dissonance can play a role in how people act, think, and make decisions. They may engage
in behaviors or adopt attitudes to help relieve the discomfort caused by the conflict. So, for instance, a vegan who fosters baby animals and volunteers at a local shelter might experience a whole lot more stress by eating meat then let’s say someone who always talks about exercise yet never gets off the couch. “People may experience psychological stress because they know they should have self-compassion, but at the same time feel a deep sense of shame and regret,” Gallagher says.
There are a number of different situations that can create conflicts that lead to cognitive dissonance.
Sometimes you might find yourself engaging in behaviors that are opposed to your own beliefs due to external expectations, often for work, school, or a social situation. This might involve going along with something due to peer pressure or doing something at work to avoid getting fired.
Humans have a tendency to value achievements based on the amount of effort it took to achieve them. A person who had to save for 10 years to buy a Ferrari will value it more than that young man who made millions from cryptocurrencies within four months and bought himself a similar Ferrari. Things that take considerable effort are valued higher because we would experience dissonance if we spent a great deal of effort only to make a minor achievement.
Unfortunately, the world does not always work this way. Sometimes, we put in a lot of effort only to get a dismal outcome. Expectedly, this leads to dissonance. In order to reduce this dissonance, we either convince ourselves that the outcome was okay, that we didn’t really expend a lot of effort, or that the effort was enjoyable. This is referred to as effort justification.
Decisions are part of life. You have to make hundreds of decisions to get through each day. What you may not know is that decision making arouses dissonance as a general rule. This is because all decisions involve choosing between two or more alternatives. Each alternative has its pros and cons. Choosing one alternative means you will forego all the advantages of the unchosen alternative, while at the same time guaranteeing you the disadvantages of your chosen decision, something known as decision opportunity cost. This is what causes the dissonance. The more attractive or similar the two alternatives are, the more the cognitive dissonance you experience. To reduce this dissonance, people end up justifying their decisions, even in situations where they clearly made the worst decision.
Let’s assume you have to choose between two jobs. One job is located in a third world country, but the pay is quite good. The other job is in your hometown, but the pay is not really what you would have wished for. If you take the job in a third world country, you will earn enough money in a few years to allow you to buy your dream home, but you will be away from your family and friends. If you take the job closer to home, you will be around your family and friends, but you won’t be able to afford your dream home. This can create a great deal of dissonance, since you want to be close to friends and family, while you also want to be able to buy your dream home. Once you make your decision – regardless of what you choose – you will find yourself justifying the decision. Your mind will find ways of supporting the decision to make you feel satisfied that you made the right decision.
Dealing With Cognitive Dissonance: The good news is, resolving cognitive dissonance can often lead to positive changes. And it’s not always about making huge changes. Sometimes, a little shift in perspective can go a long way towards healthier thought patterns.
“The key is identifying it, assessing it, and figuring out how to resolve it,” Gallagher says. “You have to identify which values are yours and which values are someone else’s. And if you’re taking on someone else’s values, then you have to ask yourself why,” she says. So, for example, if someone says, ‘I can’t believe you would spend money on a housekeeper.’ You have to figure out what your values are and what’s important to you, and then you have to be okay with them, Gallagher says. “Sometimes, there’s not a right or wrong; it’s what’s best for you and this time in your life.”
When there are conflicts between cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, opinions), people will take steps to reduce
the dissonance and feelings of discomfort. They can go about doing this a few different ways, such as:
Adding more supportive beliefs that outweigh dissonant beliefs:
People who learn that greenhouse emissions result in global warming might experience feelings of dissonance if they drive a gas-guzzling vehicle. In order to reduce this dissonance, they may seek out new information that overrides the belief that greenhouse gasses contribute to global warming.
Reducing the importance of the conflicting belief:
A man who cares about his health might be disturbed to learn that sitting for long periods of time during the day is linked to a shortened lifespan. Since he has to work all day in an office and spends a great deal of time sitting, it is difficult to change his behavior. To deal with the feelings of discomfort, he might instead find some way of rationalizing the conflicting cognition. He might justify his sedentary behavior by saying that his other healthy behaviors—like eating sensibly and occasionally exercising—make up for his largely sedentary lifestyle
Change The Conflicting Action Or Behavior
If the person cannot find any new information to help them change his or her beliefs, the person can still solve the dissonance by getting rid of the action or behavior that causes the dissonance. Let’s take a look at our smoker friend again. Assuming that he couldn’t find any concrete information to make him change the belief that smoking is harmful to his health, our friend has the option of quitting smoking. Unfortunately, our friend is addicted to smoking, therefore quitting smoking will be a difficult thing for him. Just like our friend, many people do not successfully eliminate dissonance by changing their actions or behavior. This is because changing well-learned behaviors is not easy.
Cognitive dissonance affects everyone, and it plays a role in many of a person’s daily judgments and decisions. Although cognitive dissonance may seem like a negative effect, it can also help people change and grow in positive ways. Through awareness of conflicting beliefs and actions, people can address their habits and bring their behaviors in line with their values.
Since the dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling, the person must either change their behavior, their attitude or their belief in order to reduce the dissonance and restore balance. The uncomfortable feeling caused by cognitive dissonance might manifest itself as stress, anxiety, regret, shame, embarrassment, or feelings of negative self worth.
This explains why you feel bad when you miss your gym session. Since you believe going to the gym is good for your health and fitness, missing the gym for a TV show goes against your beliefs, causing an uncomfortable feeling. Since the smoker friend knows that smoking is bad and yet loves smoking, he tries to change his beliefs by convincing himself that smoking is not that bad. And unable to reach the grapes, the fox changes his attitude and convinces himself that the grapes were sour anyway.
Every person has an inner need to keep their beliefs and behaviors consistent. Any inconsistency caused by conflicting beliefs and behaviors causes tension or disharmony. Just like hunger leads to an activity meant to reduce this hunger, the tension caused by cognitive dissonance will lead to an activity meant to reduce this
Since the avoidance of cognitive dissonance is an innate desire, cognitive dissonance has a very powerful influence on our actions and behaviors. It affects our evaluations, judgments and decisions. It also explains many common but irrational human tendencies, such as justification, rationalization and our constantly shifting beliefs and attitudes.