At some point in our lives, we all experience cognitive dissonance. The brain fog we see when our beliefs and stances are not in line with reality—that we are not perceiving the world as it truly is—is familiar territory. We have felt this fog during the Covid lockdowns.
For eons, we were conditioned to believe work was a place away from home. We knew work happened in office settings, with our colleagues around. Then came Covid, and the new protocols pushed many to face the new reality of working from home (WFH) while being surrounded by family. This gave us a great deal of cognitive dissonance.
Now, most of us wouldn’t blink if one of our kids appeared without warning asking for help while we’re on a Zoom call. However, it still doesn’t mean we don’t need to bother coming to terms with trying to get work done while caring for children.
What Is Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive Dissonance is the sense of unease we get when we act in ways that contradict our values or beliefs. It’s the experience of having two contradictory thoughts at the same time, each in conflict with the other, creating stress and anxiety.
In social psychology, cognitive dissonance is a theory that refers to the mental conflict resulting from a misalignment between a person’s behaviors and beliefs. Scientists have been studying 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.
We can explain Cognition as 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 opposite opinions about a topic.
In a nutshell, people experience negative emotions when they detect a cognitive conflict. But exactly how does it make us suffer?
How Do We Suffer From Cognitive Dissonance?
Your mind is naturally wired to seek consistency, so when it’s exposed to conflicting data, it will do everything in its power to influence your behavior so that it is congruent with past information.
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. It can also cause a person to eventually change their behavior, especially when the weight of their guilt becomes too much to bear.
For example, if you recently started drinking soda on a daily basis after years of lecturing people how unhealthy it is, you may begin to feel terrible about it. Your bad feelings arise from the conflict between your beliefs and actions.
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 action, and might stop eventually. But if they learn to override their guilt, their behavior gets labeled as hypocrisy. Surprisingly, often the person themselves recognize 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.
How Can We Reduce Cognitive Dissonance?
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 the dissonance. For unimportant cognitions, people tend to forget about it. For moderately important cognitions, people usually change their attitudes. For highly important cognitions, they adopt mental restructuring.
The good news about cognitive dissonance is that it is a temporary state. It doesn’t last if you control your actions or change your beliefs around those actions. Fixing it is mostly about figuring out where and why it happens.
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 instance, each time you eat meat while on a vegan diet creates more or less the same amount of cognitive dissonance, but the more often you do it, the easier it gets to handle the conflict.
People frequently reduce cognitive dissonance by discounting and dismissing information that contradicts their beliefs. They may cut off access to new information that refutes their pre-existing ideas and only remain open to data that support their beliefs. This is 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 Beahvior
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.
You don’t care much if the people you’re doing it in front of are strangers.
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.
Despite a large body of research on dissonance theory, no general model of dissonance reduction exists as of this writing.
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.
Further study: 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). DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.540081
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To achieve long-term motivational goals, you must increase your cognitive capacity. Here’s a list of foods and exercises to improve your brain health.
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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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