At some point in our lives, we all experience cognitive dissonance.
We have felt this mental conflict during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
We always thought work was separate from home. Work happened in office settings, with our colleagues around.
Then came Covid, and many people had to face the new reality of working from home (WFH) while being surrounded by family. This created a lot of cognitive dissonance for us.
Most of us today wouldn’t blink if one of our children tapped us on the shoulder and asked for help while we were on a Zoom call. We could overcome that cognitive dissonance and get better at working while still caring for our children.
Cognitive dissonance is the conflict we feel when our beliefs and opinions do not conform to our reality.
[• Learn to calm down when dissonance stresses you out by stimulating your vagus nerve.]
What Is Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is a theory in social psychology that refers to mental conflict arising when our behavior and beliefs are misaligned. It implies that we feel stressed when made to act in ways that contradict our ideals or beliefs. It is holding two competing thoughts at the same time, causing us anxiety and indecision.
Scientists have been studying it for more than 60 years.
Leon Festinger, a psychologist, presented the theory of cognitive dissonance in his 1957 book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.
Festinger claimed that people feel psychological discomfort when they hold conflicting views or when their actions contradict their views.
- Cognition is all the mental processes involved in the acquiring, storing, understanding, and retrieving of information via thoughts, experiences, and the senses.
- Cognitive means relating to mental processes, or intellectual or psychological functions, such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering.
- Dissonance is a lack of harmony or agreement between two or more people or groups. It also means an absence of harmony between objects and musical notes.
- Cognitive dissonance, in common parlance, is experiencing a lack of harmony between two opposing opinions about a topic.
So, people are stressed and confused when they notice a cognitive conflict. But exactly how does it make us suffer?
How Can We Reduce Cognitive Dissonance?
The good news about cognitive dissonance is that it is a temporary state.
It fades away when you control your actions, or change your beliefs around those actions. Fixing it is mostly about figuring out where its roots are.
Festinger hypothesized three main ways in which a person could reduce dissonance:
- Change one of the dissonant cognitions, such as changing one’s attitude;
- Add consonant cognitions to reduce overall inconsistency, such as seeking information to explain one’s inconsistent behavior; and
- Diminish the importance of cognition in dissonant situations, such as trivializing the dissonant behavior or the importance of the attitude.
In terms of importance, here’s a model of how people work to eliminate dissonance.
- For unimportant cognitions, people tend to forget about them.
- For moderately important cognitions, people usually change their attitudes.
- For highly important cognitions, they adopt mental restructuring.
Let’s dive into a few helpful ways to reduce it:
1. Denying and Rejecting
People will avoid information and situations that could increase that specific dissonance (Festinger, 1957).
Rejection comes easy when a dissonant activity is oft-repeated.
For example, eating meat while on a vegan diet causes roughly the same degree of cognitive dissonance, but the more frequently you do it, the simpler it is to deal with the conflict.
We can reduce our dissonance by discounting and dismissing information that contradicts our beliefs.
They may cut off access to new information that refutes their pre-existing ideas, and only remain open to data that supports their beliefs.
This may lead to another bias, called “confirmation bias.”
2. Convincing Self or Others
The easiest way for a person to reduce their cognitive dissonance is to convince oneself that there is no conflict.
A person suffering from cognitive dissonance may reach out to and find support from other people who hold similar opinions or matching ideologies, and join their group. They may try persuading others that all fresh information is agenda-driven and fallacious.
3. Rationalizing The Behavior
Rationalizing is the process of applying logic to a situation.
To reduce cognitive dissonance, a person may rationalize their actions by inventing implausible (and sometimes ridiculous) excuses.
Despite knowing that smoking causes cancer, a smoker may rationalize the habit by claiming they only smoke once or twice a day and only when they are stressed at work.
Weick (1968) proposed that dissonant conduct in the presence of friends and family (rather than alone) may result in self-justification or vindication because the reversing of the dissonant behavior may be embarrassing.
When you’re performing a cognitively dissonant activity in front of strangers, you don’t give a darn. Because you know they have no idea of your perspective regarding that activity.
4. Reconciling The Differences
This involves resolving the differences causing mental discomfort.
The person may accept the validity of pre-existing beliefs and change their behavior consistent with their views.
They may do it in two ways.
Sometimes people are simply too exhausted to deal with dissonant situations and might try to find the easy way out of dissonance.
In doing so, they often resort to ways that are less cognitively taxing, like a distraction or escaping the situation.
Long-term goals to eliminate dissonance are more likely to necessitate the use of elaborate strategies (like transcendence and attitude change).
Alternatively, it could lead them to abandon their established beliefs and form new ones.
Why Do We Suffer From Cognitive Dissonance?
We suffer from cognitive dissonance because our brain finds it difficult to accept that what is happening at present is not what we have always assumed to be true based on our experiences.
When confronted with conflicting data, your mind will do all in its power to influence your behavior so that it is consistent with past information.
The discomfort arises when our current reality contradicts the judgments we have drawn from our experiences.
Cognitive dissonance influences our thoughts, attitudes, decisions, behavior, and beliefs. It evokes anxiety, guilt, and shame, and makes us want to avoid it.
It can lead people to lie about or hide their incongruent behavior, rationalize their actions to themselves or others when caught, and resist absorbing new information from trustworthy sources.
Furthermore, it can also cause a person to eventually change their behavior, especially when the weight of their guilt becomes too much to bear.
Examples of Cognitive Dissonance
For instance, suppose you’re given to hold a real-looking yet fake snake in your hands.
You know it’s harmless, yet it causes cognitive dissonance because you’ve been taught that snakes are dangerous.
So, your first instinct would be to toss it away as soon as you hold it.
For example, if you recently began drinking soda daily after years of lecturing others about how unhealthy it is, you may start to feel bad about it.
The tug-of-war between your beliefs and behaviors is the source of your bad feelings.
Another instance of cognitive conflict may arise when a person makes it a point to drive far from home to have Doner Kebabs or Shawarma Rolls so that no one recognizes him/her—despite harboring strong anti-meat sentiments.
If the practice continues, the person will likely keep adding guilt, stress, and shame to their actions, and might stop eventually. But if they learn to override their guilt, their behavior gets labeled as hypocrisy. Surprisingly, often the person themselves recognizes their hypocrisy.
Why Do We Want To Reduce Cognitive Dissonance?
Reducing dissonance is actually achieving consonance. We do so because we want to lighten our negative moods.
- The original theory, by Festinger (1957) suggests that, since cognitive dissonance comes with negative emotional reactions, the need to lessen those emotions drives the urge to reduce the dissonance.
- According to Beauvois and Joule (1996, 1999), the dissonance reduction process is more about rationalizing a prior commitment to a behavior rather than restoring consonance.
- From a self-affirmation perspective (Steele and Liu, 1983; Aronson et al., 2019), dissonance reduction serves as a means of repairing one’s self-image.
- The self-consistency model (Aronson, 1992, 1999) suggests that people seek consonance when cognitive conflicts threaten their self-integrity.
However, while most of us experience cognitive dissonance, not everyone feels the same strong desire to do so. Festinger defined the magnitude of dissonance as the proportion of dissonant to consonant cognitions.
We now know that people who are more tolerant of uncertainty and inconsistency suffer less dissonance compared to those who need consistency.
Despite a large body of research on dissonance theory, no general model of dissonance reduction exists.
A General Model of Dissonance Reduction: Unifying Past Accounts via an Emotion Regulation Perspective by Sebastian Cancino-Montecinos, Fredrik Björklund, Torun Lindholm (Frontiers in Psychology, Nov 2020).
The main problem with cognitive dissonance is that it can make it difficult to recognize what is true and what is false.
You may be unsure whether what you already know or what new knowledge tells you is correct.
It can lead to a state of indecision where you keep changing your mind to try to find the position that corresponds to reality.
On the other hand, it prevents you from being dogmatic about your beliefs and from changing your deeply held beliefs.
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To achieve long-term goals, you must overcome cognitive dissonance. Here’s a list of foods and exercises to improve your brain health and improve cognitive ability.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
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