Understanding Cognitive Dissonance (and Why it Occurs in Most People)
There is a popular kids’ story about a fox and some grapes. According to the story, the famished fox prowls the forests looking for something to fill his stomach. Luckily, the fox chances upon a vine with some ripe and juicy grapes. His hunger pushing him, the fox rushes to the vine.
Unfortunately, the grapes are dangling from a branch that is a bit lofty. The fox takes a few steps back and leaps into the air, his jaws snapping as he tries to reach the grapes.
The grapes are just beyond his reach. Not one to give up easily, the fox tries to reach the grapes again, but for all his efforts, he can’t reach the grapes. After several unsuccessful attempts, the fox finally gives up. As he wanders off into the forest to search for something else to fill his stomach, the fox tells himself that the grapes were probably sour anyway. Why does he say this, when he knows for a fact that the grapes were looking ripe and juicy?
Closer to home, away from the forests, all of us have had similar experiences. Almost everyone knows someone who has refused to give up smoking, even if the person knows smoking is not good for him or her. Despite all the scientific evidence showing the effects of smoking, the person convinces himself that smoking is not that bad for him.
Other times, we do things that leave us feeling bad or guilty. For instance, you might decide to skip on your gym session so that you can catch an extra episode of the TV show you are watching on Netflix. Since you had made a commitment to yourself to go to the gym every day, you are left with a feeling of guilt even as you watch the TV show.
Why does this happen? Why does the fox say the grapes are probably sour? Why does your friend justify his or her smoking even why they know it is harmful to their health? Why do you feel guilty after missing your gym session to catch a TV show? The answer to all these questions is something known as cognitive dissonance.
WHAT IS COGNITIVE DISSONANCE?
Cognitive dissonance refers to the feelings of discomfort that arise when a person’s behavior or attitude is in conflict with the person’s values and beliefs, or when new information that is contrary to their beliefs is presented to them. People like consistency. They want the assurance that their values and beliefs have always been right. They always want to act in ways that are in line with their beliefs. When their beliefs are challenged, or when their behavior is not aligned with their beliefs, this creates a disagreement (dissonance).
Since the dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling, the person must either change their behavior, their attitude or their belief in order to reduce the dissonance and restore balance. The uncomfortable feeling caused by cognitive dissonance might manifest itself as stress, anxiety, regret, shame, embarrassment, or feelings of negative self-worth.
This explains why you feel bad when you miss your gym session. Since you believe going to the gym is good for your health and fitness, missing the gym for a TV show goes against your beliefs, causing an uncomfortable feeling. Since the smoker friend knows that smoking is bad and yet loves smoking, he tries to change his beliefs by convincing himself that smoking is not that bad. And unable to reach the grapes, the fox changes his attitude and convinces himself that the grapes were sour anyway.
The first person to investigate cognitive dissonance was a psychologist known as Leon Festinger. Festinger infiltrated a cult where the members were convinced that the earth would be destroyed by a flood before the dawn of 21 December 1954.
According to the cult leader, true believers would be rescued by a flying saucer and taken to a planet known as Clarion. In anticipation for the flood, some of the more committed members of the cult left their jobs, schools and spouses and gave away their money and possessions.
Too bad for them, since the flood never came.
However, this is where things get interesting. While the non-committed members who had not given up their lives realized that the cult leader had made fools out of them, the more committed members were convinced that their faithfulness saved the world. Rather than accept their belief was wrong, they found a way to explain the events in a way that preserved their belief system.
After conducting a number of experiments, Leon Festinger came up with the theory of cognitive dissonance. According to the theory, every person has an innate drive to maintain an internal consistency of cognitions and to avoid a state of tension.
Every person has an inner need to keep their beliefs and behaviors consistent. Any inconsistency caused by conflicting beliefs and behaviors causes a tension or disharmony. Just like hunger leads to an activity meant to reduce this hunger, the tension caused by cognitive dissonance will lead to an activity meant to reduce this tension.
Since the avoidance of cognitive dissonance is an innate desire, cognitive dissonance has a very powerful influence on our actions and behaviors. It affects our evaluations, judgments and decisions. It also explains many common but irrational human tendencies, such as justification, rationalization and our constantly shifting beliefs and attitudes.
For instance, someone who buys an expensively priced shoe from a luxury store when he could have bought the same shoe at a lower price from a different store convinces himself that the cheaper shoe is a fake to justify his purchase, even when there is no difference between the shoes.
Similarly, a person who believes that good diet is good for health but loves eating junk food will experience cognitive dissonance. To reduce the tension, the person might reduce the amount of junk she consumes each week. In this case, the cognitive dissonance has provided motivation for her to change her Lifestyle.
CAUSES OF COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
Cognitive dissonance occurs when you find yourself in situations where there is an inconsistency between your values, beliefs, attitudes and actions. Such situations might be brought about by:
Forced Compliance Behavior
Forced compliance behavior refers to situations where a person is forced to perform actions that are not consistent with his or her beliefs. Consider an accountant who is told to cover up an instance of financial misappropriation by her boss. The accountant believes this is wrong, yet she might be forced to do it in order to retain her job.
This leads to cognitive dissonance.
Decisions are part of life. You have to make hundreds of decisions to get through each day. What you may not know is that decision making arouses dissonance as a general rule. This is because all decisions involve choosing between two or more alternatives. Each alternative has its pros and cons. Choosing one alternative means you will forego all the advantages of the unchosen alternative, while at the same time guaranteeing you the disadvantages of your chosen decision, something known as decision opportunity cost.
This is what causes the dissonance. The more attractive or similar the two alternatives are, the more the cognitive dissonance you experience. To reduce this dissonance, people end up justifying their decisions, even in situations where they clearly made the worse decision.
Let’s assume you have to choose between two jobs. One job is located in a third world country, but the pay is quite good. The other job is in your hometown, but the pay is not really what you would have wished for. If you take the job in the third world country, you will earn enough money in a few years to allow you buy to your dream home, but you will be away from your family and friends. If you take the job closer to home, you will be around your family and friends, but you won’t be able to afford your dream home.
This can create a great deal of dissonance, since you want to be close to friends and family, while you also want to be able to buy your dream home. Once you make your decision – regardless of what you choose – you will find yourself justifying the decision. Your mind will find ways of supporting the decision to make you feel satisfied that you made the right decision.
Humans have a tendency to value achievements based on the amount of effort it took to achieve them. A person who had to save for 10 years to buy a Ferrari will value it more than that young man who made millions from cryptocurrencies within four months and bought himself a similar Ferrari.
Things that take considerable effort are valued higher because we would experience dissonance if we spent a great deal of effort only to make a minor achievement.
Unfortunately, the world does not always work this way. Sometimes, we put in a lot of effort only to get a dismal outcome. Expectedly, this leads to dissonance. In order to reduce this dissonance, we either convince ourselves that the outcome was okay, that we didn’t really expend a lot of effort, or that the effort was enjoyable. This is referred to as effort justification.
Gaining New Information
Another major cause of cognitive dissonance is coming across information that goes against our beliefs. Let’s consider the example of Festinger’s cultists from the 1950s. These group of people believed that there would be a flood and that a flying saucer would come to their rescue. Come the morning of 21st December, there was neither a flood nor a UFO. This new information was against their beliefs, resulting in cognitive dissonance.
To reduce their discomfort, the cultists then convinced themselves that the world was saved because of their faith, and they embarked on a new mission to spread the word to the world.
FACTORS INFLUENCING COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
The degree of cognitive dissonance experienced by a person varies depending on the particular situation that caused the dissonance and the circumstances surrounding the situation. The intensity of the cognitive dissonance experienced is generally affected by the following factors:
- Personal cognitions, such as beliefs about self and personal values result in a higher degree of cognitive dissonance. People don’t like looking dumb, dishonest or unethical, therefore they will be very uncomfortable about any dissonance that threatens their self-image.
- The importance of the cognition. Generally, if the belief or value is highly valued, then the resulting dissonance will be stronger.
- The disparity between the consonant (harmonious) belief and the dissonant (conflicting) thoughts, action or information. The greater the disparity, the greater the dissonance.
- The possibility of explaining the dissonance in other ways. If there are multiple ways for explaining away the dissonance, then the intensity of the dissonance will be minimized.
- The ramifications of the decision, as well as the ease with which the consequences of the decision can be undone. Permanent decisions with significant ramifications tend to cause stronger dissonance.
These factors determine the influence the dissonance and the lengths to which we will go to reduce or eliminate the discomfort. The stronger the dissonance, the more pressure there is to reduce the tension.
HOW TO RECOGNIZE COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
Cognitive dissonance is natural, and everyone goes through varying degrees of dissonance on a daily basis, depending on the different situations we find ourselves in and the beliefs being challenged. Often, the degree of dissonance is so insignificant that our minds resolve it without us being remotely aware that we were experiencing cognitive dissonance.
Sometimes, however, the feeling of discomfort becomes strong enough that you become aware that something is not right, even if you might not recognize that you are experiencing cognitive dissonance.
So, how can you tell with certainty when you are experiencing cognitive dissonance? Below are some common signs that signify dissonance:
- Feeling squeamish or uncomfortable: Have you ever felt an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach right before or right after doing something or making a decision? More often than not, this is a sign that you are experiencing cognitive dissonance.
- Conflict avoidance: Some people don’t like conflicts or confrontations at all. When faced with a potential confrontational situation, they choose the path of least resistance, which is to avoid the conflict. Conflict avoidance can also be a sign of cognitive dissonance. Instead of facing the situation, they decide to avoid the mental anguish associated with the conflict.
- Ignoring the facts: Another sure sign of cognitive dissonance is ignoring the facts and making decisions that are wrong from a rational point of view. For instance, an obese person may continue consuming junk food even when they have been warned by the doctor that it will have adverse effects on their health.
- Rationalization: If you make a decision and then find yourself convincing yourself that you made the right decision, that right there is an indicator of cognitive dissonance.
- FOMO: This is known as the fear of missing out. How many times have you ended up going up to the club with your friends when you know that you should be saving that money? The fear of missing out causes you to do something that is against your belief in order to look cool or to impress your friends. That is cognitive dissonance right there.
- Shame: When we do something that goes against our beliefs, especially our personal beliefs, we end up with a feeling of shame. Even after trying to rationalize what you did, you still feel remorse for it and may even want to hide your choices or actions from other people.
- Guilt: Doing something that is against your beliefs is also often accompanied by feelings of guilt. You feel that you messed up, that you should have done something else instead. The cognitive dissonance before such an action is usually signified by anxiety right before the action, followed by guilt after the action is done. This is usually followed by justification as you try to alleviate the guilt.
WAYS OF REDUCING COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
When there is a conflict between a person’s beliefs, thoughts, opinions and actions, the theory of cognitive dissonance claims that the person will take some steps in order to reduce the dissonance and the associated feelings of discomfort. There are three common reactions to cognitive dissonance. These are:
Change The Dissonant Beliefs
This is the simplest and most effective way of resolving cognitive dissonance. Let’s consider your smoker friend. The friend is addicted to cigarettes, yet the cigarette pack contains a warning that smoking is harmful for health. This creates dissonance. He may look for new information that might override the belief that smoking is harmful.
If he, for instance, comes across an article that claims that research has not shown a definite link between smoking and lung cancer, such information might result in him changing the belief that smoking is harmful to his health, thereby reducing the dissonance.
While changing the dissonant belief is the simplest way of reducing dissonance, it is not the most common. This is because, in most cases, people are not so willing to change their beliefs, especially the fundamental beliefs that they have formed since their childhood. This leads to the second reaction.
Change The Conflicting Action Or Behavior
If the person cannot find any new information to help them change his or her beliefs, the person can still solve the dissonance by getting rid of the action or behavior that causes the dissonance. Let’s take a look at our smoker friend again.
Assuming that he couldn’t find any concrete information to make him change the belief that smoking is harmful to his health, our friend has the option of quitting smoking. Unfortunately, our friend is addicted to smoking, therefore quitting smoking will be a difficult thing for him. Just like our friend, many people do not successfully eliminate dissonance by changing their actions or behavior. This is because changing well-learned behaviors is not easy.
Sometimes, the conflicting behavior or action might even have some benefit for the person (for example, a person who cheats in an exam). In such instances, the person needs a way to eliminate the dissonance without changing their beliefs or behavior, which leads us to the third method.
Reduce The Significance Of The Conflicting Belief
This is the most common method of reducing cognitive dissonance. With this method, the person changes how they perceive the conflicting belief or behavior. In other words, they find a way of rationalizing the conflicting cognition.
Once again, let’s consider our smoker friend. Without any information to help him change his belief and unable to quit smoking, he might justify his smoking by saying that the world is full of health risks and he cannot realistically avoid all of them.
Alternatively, he might tell himself that it is better to live a short life full of pleasure (smoking) than to live a long life without the pleasures. In so doing, he is reducing the significance of the belief that smoking is bad for his health.
REAL-LIFE EXAMPLES OF COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
Below are some examples of cognitive dissonance in everyday life:
- Imagine a situation where a person gets hurt by their partner. You will hear most of them say that they should not have ignored the red flags. This is cognitive dissonance at play. The person actually sees signs that the partner has some negative traits, but since the person is in love, he or she convinces himself that they are temporary, or that the good traits of the partner overweigh these signs. This is the same reason why people stay in abusive relationships. For instance, a lady who gets hit by her lover after being in a relationship for a year experiences cognitive dissonance because she loves her partner but doesn’t love his behavior. To reduce the dissonance, she might overlook getting hurt and look at the positive traits of the partner. In so doing, the lady opts to stay with an abusive partner.
- Asked to compare their current partner and their ex, most people will rate their current partner highly, regardless of the actual differences between the two partners. Having made the decision to leave the ex and hook up with the current partner, people romanticize the current partner in order to be satisfied that they made the right decision.
- Imagine a HR manager who is ordered to dismiss an employee due to misconduct, even if there is no evidence showing any misconduct by the employee. The lack of evidence and the HR manager’s moral views of right and wrong may lead to cognitive dissonance. If he doesn’t follow the wishes of the board, the HR manager might be placing his own job on the line as well. This intensifies the dissonance and might even result in the HR manager experiencing stress.
- Most people with addictions know that the addictions are bad for them, yet they still want to indulge in their addictions, leading to cognitive dissonance. Many of them find ways of rationalizing or justifying their addictions, which makes it even harder for them to stop the addiction.
Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort we feel when our actions and behavior are not aligned with our beliefs and values. This feeling of discomfort is so great that cognitive dissonance can have a very significant influence on our decisions and the actions we take.
Cognitive dissonance can also be used to manipulate us into doing things we do not want to.
Becoming aware of the effect of cognitive dissonance on our decisions and understanding how we can overcome it can help us make better decisions and help us make positive behavior changes rather than continue lying to ourselves.