Have you ever been aware that some of your actions contradict your beliefs? This is an example of cognitive dissonance.

You might be an animal advocate who serves meat in family meals. Maybe you’re an environmental activist who drives to work or uses air travel for long distances.

Sometimes circumstance makes it challenging to align all of your actions with your ideals and core beliefs.

Still, these situations likely generate a sense of inner conflict. This uncomfortable feeling is called cognitive dissonance.

Contrary to what some people believe, cognitive dissonance isn’t the same thing as hypocrisy, though.

Hypocrisy is the voluntary action involved when behaviors contradict beliefs or words, and cognitive dissonance is the unsettling feeling of mental discomfort resulting from this contradiction.

Psychologist Leon Festinger was the first to use the term cognitive dissonance to describe self-awareness of the conflict between two thoughts that coexist even when they’re contradictory.

Cognitive dissonance theory states that related thoughts or behaviors can be consonant (in agreement) or dissonant (in conflict).

“Cognitive” refers to knowledge and comprehension, gained through the senses, experiences, or thought processes.

When concepts are consonant, the result is internal harmony. You feel you’re acting according to what you believe and think.

When concepts are dissonant, this creates internal stress and the drive to make a change.

Cognitive dissonance is common. Most people experience it at some time or another. There are many situations where thoughts, concepts, or actions can coexist in conflict.

Remember that cognitive dissonance is about how you feel inside when you go against what you believe, whether by choice or circumstance.

Here are some examples of cognitive dissonance in different scenarios:

Communication

You may have told the people in your life to be honest with you. You value truth above all else because it helps you learn and grow.

If you find yourself telling half-truths to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, this may result in cognitive dissonance.

Diet

Imagine learning that you have a family history of a medical condition that dietary choices can bring on.

You realize you can benefit from different food options as you learn about the condition.

You’ve had a busy week, though, so you indulge in the convenience of take-out for dinner, even though you know it’s precisely the type of food you need to avoid.

Exercise

You’ve heard about recommended weekly exercise minutes and recognize the importance of physical activity. You even insist your partner exercises regularly to stay healthy.

As you catch your breath at the top of a flight of stairs, you reflect on how much better you’d feel if you improved your fitness level.

A few weeks pass, and you still haven’t added any workouts to your schedule.

Environmentalism

You have a bag for paper, a bin for plastic and metal containers, and another bin for glass. You dutifully rinse, flatten, and pack every recyclable item you can, because you believe that each person’s effort counts.

You open a box packed with Styrofoam, which isn’t included in your curbside recycling service. Instead of taking it to a recycling depot, you put it in the garbage that’s bound for the landfill, telling yourself that just this once won’t matter.

Sleep

After another week of sleep deprivation, you vow to change your schedule.

You understand the importance of sleep, and even talk about it with your friends.

Yet once again, you find yourself up late endlessly scrolling social media or indulging in a favorite streaming series, with your alarm set for another early morning.


The difference between cognitive dissonance and forced compliance

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling a person can experience when having two conflicting ideas or experiences.

Forced compliance comes from pressure put on you to do something that conflicts with your beliefs.

Forced compliance can cause cognitive dissonance. When you’re pressured to do something you’d rather not, cognitive dissonance exists because of the contradiction between the action and your preference not to perform it.

Anything that sets up an inner conflict between two concepts or behaviors can cause cognitive dissonance.

Forced compliance

If you’ve been pressured to say or do something against your wishes, you’ve experienced forced compliance. This can cause cognitive dissonance.

Effort

It can be stressful putting effort into something only to achieve disappointing results. Spending time and effort without getting the desired outcome can be a source of cognitive dissonance.

Decision-making

Imagine you have two options, both with pros and cons. It might be a new job, or the decision of whether to move to a new city.

While you’re undecided, all the advantages are possible. However, once you’ve made a decision, you have cognitive dissonance between gaining the pros of one choice and losing the pros of the other.

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is the effort of one person to make another doubt themselves.

You may have experienced this from someone in your life like a family member or co-worker.

When someone tries to convince you of something you know isn’t true, this causes cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance can result in a desire for change in an effort to reduce mental discomfort.

Change, in both thought and behavior, comes from choices, which can either create or resolve cognitive dissonance.

A 2017 behavioral study suggests that the act of choosing between options changes your initial preferences.

When you make a choice that causes cognitive dissonance, a common response may be to view the option you’ve rejected differently by dismissing its importance. This downgrading relieves your cognitive dissonance caused by your choice.

Cognitive dissonance and its impact on preferences can sometimes lead to confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is when you interpret new information in a way that fits your existing beliefs. This can cause you to disregard other potentially important information in the situation.

Cognitive dissonance also has benefits for your health. It can lead to helpful lifestyle changes like regular exercise and smoking cessation. It may encourage you to speak the truth more often, or spend your money in more ethical ways.

Dealing with cognitive dissonance can be as simple as eliminating the conflict that’s causing it.

To reduce or eliminate cognitive dissonance, you could do one of several things:

  • change a behavior
  • change a belief
  • change your view of a belief to lessen its importance

Changing a behavior to align it with your thoughts and values can reduce or eliminate cognitive dissonance.

For example, an environment advocate can take steps like switching to reusable bags and wearing a sweater before turning on the furnace.

If gaslighting is the reason for your cognitive dissonance, you can change your belief about the statements you’re hearing by recognizing when they’re incorrect.

Depending on your relationship with the other person, you may be able to effectively self-advocate. In some situations, a mental health professional can help you sort through your thoughts.

When effort that doesn’t pay off causes cognitive dissonance, try to look for a silver lining to reduce the impact of the disappointment.

For example, if your gym time hasn’t produced the weight loss you’d hoped for, consider celebrating how your resistance and strength have improved.

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, or when your actions contradict your values.

Forced compliance, when you’re pressured to do or say something you’d rather not, can cause cognitive dissonance.

You can reduce cognitive dissonance by changing your behaviors or modifying your beliefs.