If you’re interested in psychology and human behavior, you’ve probably heard the phrase cognitive dissonance. It’s the term coined by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954 to describe “the feeling of psychological discomfort produced by the combined presence of two thoughts that do not follow from one another. Festinger proposed that the greater the discomfort, the greater the desire to reduce the dissonance of the two cognitive elements” (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999). Dissonance theory suggests that if individuals act in ways that contradict their beliefs, then they typically will change their beliefs to align with their actions (or vice-a-versa).
The easiest way to describe the concept is by a quick example. Say you’re a student looking to choose between two different universities you’d like to attend. After being accepted to each, you’re asked to freely rate the universities after considering each college’s pros and cons. You make your decision and are asked to rate the two universities once again. People will usually rate the chosen university as better and the rejected option as worse after having made their decision.
So even if the university we didn’t choose was rated higher initially, our choice dictates that more often than not, we’ll rate it higher. Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense why we would choose the lower-rated school. This is cognitive dissonance at work.
Another example can be seen in many people’s continuing to smoke two or three packs of cigarettes a day, even though research shows they are shortening their own lives. They answer this cognitive dissonance with thoughts like, “Well, I’ve tried to quit and it’s just too hard,” or “It’s not as bad as they say and besides, I really enjoy smoking.” Daily smokers justify their behaviors through rationalizations or denial, just as most people do when faced with cognitive dissonance.
Not everyone feels cognitive dissonance to the same degree. People with a higher need for consistency and certainty in their lives usually feel the effects of cognitive dissonance more than those who have a lesser need for such consistency.
Cognitive-dissonance is just one of many biases that work in our everyday lives. We don’t like to believe that we may be wrong, so we may limit our intake of new information or thinking about things in ways that don’t fit within our pre-existing beliefs. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.”
We also don’t like to second-guess our choices, even if later they are proven wrong or unwise. By second-guessing ourselves, we suggest we may not be as wise or as right as we’ve led ourselves to believe. This may lead us to commit to a particular course of action and become insensitive to and reject alternative, perhaps better, courses that come to light. That’s why many people seek to avoid or minimize regret in their lives, and seek “closure” — imposing a definitive end to an event or relationship. It reduces the possibility of future cognitive dissonance.
So What Do I Do About Cognitive Dissonance?
But for all of the writing about cognitive dissonance, little has been written about what to do about it (or whether you should even care). If our brains were made to think this way to help protect our own view of the world or sense of self or follow through on a commitment, is this a bad thing that we should try and undo?
People may run into problems with cognitive dissonance because it can be, in its most basic form, a sort of lie to oneself. As with all lies, it depends on the size of the lie and whether it’s more likely to hurt you in some way in the long run. We tell “little white lies” everyday in our social lives (“Oh yes, that’s a great color on you!”) that bring little harm to either side and help smooth over otherwise awkward situations. So while cognitive dissonance resolves the internal anxiety we face over two opposing beliefs or behaviors, it may also inadvertently reinforce future bad decisions.
Matz and his colleagues (2008) showed that our personality can help mediate the effects of cognitive dissonance. They found that people who were extraverted were less likely to feel the negative impact of cognitive dissonance and were also less likely to change their mind. Introverts, on the other hand, experienced increased dissonance discomfort and were more likely to change their attitude to match the majority of others in the experiment.
What if you can’t change your personality?
Self-awareness seems to be a key to understanding how and when cognitive dissonance may play a role in your life. If you find yourself justifying or rationalizing decisions or behaviors that you’re not quite clear you firmly believe in, that might be a sign that cognitive dissonance is at work. If your explanation for something is, “Well, that’s the way I’ve always done it or thought about it,” that may also be a sign. Socrates extolled that “An unexamined life is not worth living.” In other words, challenge and be skeptical of such answers if you find yourself falling back on them.
A part of that self awareness that may help in dealing with cognitive dissonance is to examine the commitments and decisions we make in our lives. If the resolution of cognitive dissonance means that we move forward with a commitment and spring into action, making us feel better, maybe the dissonance was trying to tell us something. Maybe the decision or commitment wasn’t as right for us as we initially thought, even if it means overcoming our “no second-guessing” bias and making a different decision. Sometimes we’re just plain wrong. Admitting it, apologizing if need be, and moving forward can save us a lot of time, mental energy and hurt feelings.
Cognitive Dissonance as Therapy Technique
Cognitive dissonance isn’t always something bad — it has been successfully used to help people change their unhealthy attitudes and behaviors. For instance, if a woman holds the belief that women should be super-thin and not eat in a healthy manner, cognitive dissonance can be used to successfully change those kinds of beliefs and the resulting eating-disordered behavior (Becker et al., 2008). It’s also been successfully employed to change an over reliance on online gaming, road rage, and many other negative behaviors.
In these kinds of interventions, the model most often used is to try and get people to understand their current attitudes and behaviors, the costs involved in holding these particular attitudes or engaging in the negative behaviors, role playing, exercises and homework design to help a person to become more aware and constantly challenge the attitudes and behaviors, and self-affirmation exercises. Most of these techniques share a common grounding and background in traditional cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy techniques.
In better understanding cognitive dissonance and the role it plays in most of our lives, we can be on the lookout for it and its sometimes-negative effects.
Becker, C.B, Bull, S., Schaumberg, K., Cauble, A., & Franco, A. (2008). Effectiveness of peer-led eating disorders prevention: A replication trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(2), 347-354.
Harmon-Jones, E. & Mills, J. (Eds.)(1999). Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology. American Psychological Association: Washington, DC.
Matz, D.C. Hofstedt, P.M. & Wood, W. (2008). Extraversion as a moderator of the cognitive dissonance associated with disagreement. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(5), 401-405.