What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

Woman contemplating cognitive dissonance
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People tend to seek consistency in their beliefs and perceptions. So what happens when one of our beliefs conflicts with another previously held belief?

The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feelings of discomfort that result from holding two conflicting beliefs. When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance.

How exactly does cognitive dissonance work and how does it influence how we think and behave?

What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

Psychologist Leon Festinger proposed a theory of cognitive dissonance centered on how people try to reach internal consistency. He suggested that people have an inner need to ensure that their beliefs and behaviors are consistent. Inconsistent or conflicting beliefs lead to disharmony, which people strive to avoid.

In his book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger explained, "Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads toward activity oriented toward hunger reduction. It is a very different motivation from what psychologists are used to dealing with but, as we shall see, nonetheless powerful."

The degree of dissonance people experience can depend on a few different factors, including how highly we value a particular belief and the degree to which our beliefs are inconsistent.

The overall strength of the dissonance can also be influenced by several factors. 

  • Cognitions that are more personal, such as beliefs about the self, tend to result in greater dissonance.
  • The importance of the cognitions also plays a role. Things that involve beliefs that are highly valued typically result in stronger dissonance.
  • The ratio between dissonant thoughts and consonant thoughts can also play a role in how strong the feelings of dissonance are.
  • The greater the strength of the dissonance, the more pressure there is to relieve the feelings of discomfort.

Cognitive dissonance can often have a powerful influence on our behaviors and actions. Let's start by looking at some examples of how this works.

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance can occur in many areas of life, but it is particularly evident in situations where an individual's behavior conflicts with beliefs that are integral to his or her self-identity. For example, consider a situation in which a man who places a value on being environmentally responsible just purchased a new car that he later discovers does not get great gas mileage.

The conflict:

  • It is important for the man to take care of the environment.
  • He is driving a car that is not environmentally-friendly.

In order to reduce this dissonance between belief and behavior, he has a few difference choices.

He can sell the car and purchase another one that gets better gas mileage or he can reduce his emphasis on environmental responsibility. In the case of the second option, his dissonance could be further minimized by engaging in actions that reduce the impact of driving a gas-guzzling vehicle, such as utilizing public transportation more frequently or riding his bike to work on occasion.

A more common example of cognitive dissonance occurs in the purchasing decisions we make on a regular basis. Most people want to hold the belief that they make good choices. When a product or item we purchase turns out badly, it conflicts with our previously existing belief about our decision-making abilities.

More Examples

In his 1957 book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger offers one example of how an individual might deal with dissonance related to a health behavior. Individuals who smoke might continue to do so, even though they know it is bad for their health. Why would someone continue engaging in behavior they know is unhealthy? According to Festinger, a person might decide that they value smoking more than his or her health, deeming the behavior "worth it" in terms of risks versus rewards.

Another way to deal with this dissonance is to minimize the potential drawbacks. The smoker might convince himself that the negative health effects have been overstated. He might also assuage his health concerns by telling himself that he cannot avoid every possible risk out there.

Finally, Festinger suggested that the smoker might try to convince himself that if he does stop smoking then he will gain weight, which also presents health risks. By using such explanations, the smoker is able to reduce the dissonance and continue the behavior.

How to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance

According to Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance, people try to seek consistency in their thoughts, beliefs, and opinions. So when there are conflicts between cognitions, people will take steps to reduce the dissonance and feelings of discomfort. They can go about doing this a few different ways.There are three key strategies to reduce or minimize cognitive dissonance:

  1. Focus on more supportive beliefs that outweigh the dissonant belief or behavior.
    For example, people who learn that greenhouse emissions result in global warming might experience feelings of dissonance if they drive a gas-guzzling vehicle. In order to reduce this dissonance, they might seek out new information that disputes the connection between greenhouse gasses and global warming. This new information might serve to reduce the discomfort and dissonance that the person experiences.
  2. Reduce the importance of conflicting belief.
    For example, a man who cares about his health might be disturbed to learn that sitting for long periods of time during the day are linked to a shortened lifespan. Since he has to work all day in an office and spends a great deal of time sitting, it is difficult to change his behavior in order to reduce his feelings of dissonance. In order to deal with the feelings of discomfort, he might instead find some way to justify his behavior by believing that his other healthy behaviors make up for his largely sedentary lifestyle.
  3. Change the conflicting belief so that it is consistent with other beliefs or behaviors.
    Changing the conflicting cognition is one of the most effective ways of dealing with dissonance, but it is also one of the most difficult. Particularly in the case of deeply held values and beliefs, change can be exceedingly difficult.

Why is Cognitive Dissonance Important?

Cognitive dissonance plays a role in many value judgments, decisions, and evaluations. Becoming aware of how conflicting beliefs impact the decision-making process is a great way to improve your ability to make faster and more accurate choices.

Observations

  • "The basic hypothesis I wish to state are as follows: 1. The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance. 2. When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance."
    (Festinger, 1957)
  • "Festinger's insistence that cognitive dissonance was like a drive that needed to be reduced implied that people were going to have to find some way of resolving their inconsistencies. People do not just prefer eating over starving; we are driven to eat. Similarly, people who are in the throes of inconsistency in their social life are driven to resolve that inconsistency. How we go about dealing with our inconsistency can be rather ingenious. But, in Festinger's view, there is little question that it will be done."
    (Cooper, 2007)

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References:

Cooper, J. Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classic theory. London: Sage Publications; 2007.

Festinger, L. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1957.

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