“Smoking Kills.” “Smoking Causes Cancer.” Most of us who have seen a pack of cigarettes have seen these words written on it in large, conspicuous letters. What if you are a regular smoker, but also believe all the scientific research related to the harmful effects of smoking? Each time you light a cigarette, you might experience an unpleasant feeling of being torn between your addiction to cigarettes and your belief that you are indeed causing irrevocable damage to your health. You may be experiencing what is known in social psychology as cognitive dissonance.
The term cognitive dissonance was coined by American social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956. Cognitive dissonance may be defined as the state of having inconsistent or conflicting thoughts, beliefs, attitudes or behaviors, which, in turn, produce a feeling of discomfort within the individual. According to the definition in his 1957 book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance:
… two (cognitive) elements are in a dissonant relation if … the obverse of one element would follow from the other. To state it a bit more formally, x and y are dissonant if not-x follows from y.
Cognitive dissonance may thus be understood as a discrepancy or incongruence between two beliefs — which Festinger calls Cognitive Elements — or between belief and behavior where an individual may believe one thing but behave in contradiction to that belief. This contradiction, in turn, leads to discomfort within the psychological framework of the individual. For instance, if a person believes that excessive alcohol consumption may be harmful to health, but still continues to drink heavily, this discrepancy or dissonance between belief and behavior would inevitably cause them to experience psychological discomfort. Festinger writes:
The presence of dissonance gives rise to pressures to reduce or eliminate the dissonance. The strength of the pressures to reduce the dissonance is a function of the magnitude of the dissonance.
According to Festinger, dissonance may be reduced in the following three ways.
1. Changing a Behavioral Cognitive Element
An individual may attempt a change in behavior in order to get rid of the dissonance and achieve consonance. For instance, an individual who is aware of the harmful effects of alcohol abuse and still resorts to heavy drinking may achieve consonance by limiting or giving up alcohol.
2. Changing an Environmental Cognitive Element
Sometimes an individual, instead of trying to modify their behavior may want to modify the environment in order to reduce dissonance. As a person seldom has complete control over their environment, therefore, the factor which is somewhat easier to change in this context is the social or interpersonal environment. For example, a smoker experiencing dissonance due to smoking may surround himself with people who reject or present arguments against the view that lung cancer results from smoking.
3. Adding New Cognitive Elements
Another way to reduce dissonance is to add new information to the existing set of beliefs that may outweigh the existing information. For instance, a person who has bought an expensive car, despite being under financial constraints, may try to reduce their dissonance by convincing themselves that they are likely to get a raise very soon.
Over the years, psychological research has indicated that dissonance may affect different people differently, and some individuals may be more prone to dissonance. Psychological research indicates that depressed individuals are more susceptible to Cognitive Dissonance compared to non-depressed people (Stadler et al, 2014).
What is most interesting, however, is the link that has been found between cognitive dissonance and creativity. While in most cases, including the study on depressed individuals, cognitive dissonance may be viewed as an unpleasant feeling/cognition that causes unease and discomfort, it ought not to be always viewed as something negative, as it often proves to be a precursor to creativity, a feeling which may, in fact, serve to stimulate human cognition.
According to the late creative researcher and psychologist Colin Martindale, creative people may be resistant to cognitive dissonance and may, in fact, not be motivated to achieve consonance. In other words, the incongruity and disequilibrium might serve to create an internal environment within the individual, which, instead of producing a normal response aimed at achieving consonance, might cause them to deviate and lead them towards novelty and creativity (Runco, 2011).
We can find a real example of this in the life of the famous mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler. Experimental Psychologist Edwin G. Boring argued in his 2011 article, “Cognitive Dissonance: Its Use in Science,” that:
Any reader of Kepler’s biography will wonder how the three great planetary laws could have emerged from so inconsonant a mind, in which mysticism was mixed up with a passion for accurate observation …
As dissonance causes discomfort in the psychological framework of the individual, it often serves as a source of arousal. Dissonance directs people to either rationalize in the light of their existing beliefs or to seek out new knowledge to explain their beliefs or behavior. Seeking out new explanations can lead to motivated reasoning, resulting in creativity on the part of the individual (Runco, 2011).
It may be inferred from the above evidence that a creative individual takes advantage of the tension created within their psychological framework, and uses it as a driving force to achieve novelty and creativity. In other words, the arousal caused by dissonance is the very arousal that is required to trigger the creative process.
Cognitive dissonance, therefore, may be regarded as a multifaceted feeling, perception or force which serves and affects individuals differently depending on their psychological makeup and disposition. While dissonance may cause extreme discomfort in a lot of people, the same notion of internal conflict and discrepancy is taken by some and converted into the positive energy needed to trigger creativity and innovation.
Festinger, Leon. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press.
Runco. (2011). Encyclopedia of Creativity, 2nd edition. Academic Press.
Stadler, Anderson. (2014). Are Depressed Individuals More Susceptible to Cognitive Dissonance? Retrieved from https://uiowa.edu/crisp/sites/uiowa.edu.crisp/files/art8.20.14_3.pdf