In this blog, we’re going to cover the topic of cognitive dissonance, what it means, and some of the most common causes. We’re also going to go over the signs that indicate that someone is experiencing cognitive dissonance, as well as some frequently seen examples.
Definition and History of Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is a term used to describe the feeling of mental discomfort which is a direct result of holding two conflicting or opposite values, attitudes, or beliefs. It can often cause a sense of unease and discomfort since people usually seek consistency in their perceptions and attitudes.
The inconsistency between what someone does and their actual beliefs further motivates people to perform actions that will minimize their discomfort, which is typically rejection, avoidance of new information, and explaining away (Cherry, 2022).
The phenomenon was first investigated by Leon Festinger. He took part in an observation study where a cult believed the earth would be destroyed by a flood and later saw what happened to its members when there was no flood, especially those who were particularly committed, meaning that they gave up their jobs and homes for the sake of working for the cult.
While some of the members recognized that they were wrong and that they had made fools of themselves, other more committed members were more prone to re-interpretation of the evidence that would show they were right the whole time. They believe the earth was not destroyed due to their faithfulness to the cult.
His theory on cognitive dissonance suggests that everyone possesses an inner drive that holds all of our behaviors and attitudes in harmony and is supposed to help us avoid disharmony. This hypothesis is also known as the principle of cognitive consistency. If an inconsistency exists between behaviors and attitudes, something has to change in order to eliminate it (McLeod, 2018).
What Causes Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is one of the most heavily studied phenomena in the world of psychology. Yet, there is still too little knowledge and understanding as to why it occurs. Its origins, both developmental and environmental, are still unknown (Egan et al, 2007).
However, there are certain factors that could create conflict which then leads to cognitive dissonance, including:
Decisions: When making decisions, people choose between two options, both of which might be equally appealing, which then leads to cognitive dissonance. Once they have made their decision, people tend to justify their choices to further convince themselves that they have made the right decision.
New Information: Learning new information can occasionally lead to the feeling of discomfort, or cognitive dissonance. For example, people may engage in behaviors that they later learn was dangerous, which then further leads to justification of their actions or finding other ways to discredit the new information they’ve learned.
Forced Compliance: Doing something that’s against your own beliefs, often times influenced by friends, work, or other circumstances, also counts as a form of cognitive dissonance (Cherry, 2022).
Some of the effects that cognitive dissonance can have on an individual include feelings of guilt, anxiety, and even embarrassment. This psychological phenomenon also has a significant impact on a person’s behaviors, thoughts, mental health, and decision-making. As a result, people may be more prone to avoid learning new information, hide their beliefs or actions from other people, and even ignore doctor’s advice or research that causes them to experience cognitive dissonance (Leonard, 2019).
What Are Some Examples of Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance can manifest in a variety of ways. Here are some common examples of cognitive dissonance:
Smoking despite knowing that it’s harmful to one’s health
Eating meat despite believing to be an animal lover
Promoting a behavior or lifestyle that one does not engage in themselves
Lying to others despite believing themselves to be a trustworthy person
Purchasing a non fuel-efficient car despite believing themselves to be environmentally conscious (Leonard, 2019)
How is Cognitive Dissonance Resolved?
There are steps that people experiencing cognitive dissonance can take in order to lessen its effects. Those steps include:
Justifying or persuading: Someone experiencing cognitive dissonance might justify or persuade themselves that their two conflicting beliefs are not actually conflicting. They might also seek support from others who feel similarly to them.
Avoiding and rejecting conflicting information: People might limit their exposure to information that does not align with their core values and beliefs, which is also known as confirmation bias. Similarly, they might reject new information in order to avoid having two conflicting opinions.
Reconciling two conflicting beliefs: Ultimately, people might opt to reconcile their two conflicting beliefs or actions. An example would be a person who has decided to quit smoking because they know how harmful it is for their health. It should be noted that this tactic might be the most challenging one to achieve (Leonard, 2019).
Cognitive dissonance, one of the most prominent phenomena in psychology, affects everyone to some extent, and it also plays a role in many people’s judgements and decisions during daily life. Even though this phenomenon might seem like a negative effect on someone’s overall wellbeing, it can also promote change for the better and help people grow in a positive manner. Generally speaking, people are able to bring their behaviors in line with their core values, as well as address their habits through having awareness of conflicting beliefs and actions.
Cherry, K. (2022, February 9). Cognitive Dissonance and Ways to Resolve It. Verywell Mind. Retrieved April 30, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cognitive-dissonance-2795012
Egan, L. C., Santos, L. R., & Bloom, P. (2007). The Origins of Cognitive Dissonance. Psychological Science, 18(11), 978–983. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.02012.x
Leonard, J. (2019, October 21). Cognitive dissonance: What to know. Medical News Today. Retrieved April 30, 2022, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326738
McLeod, S. (2018, February 5). Cognitive Dissonance. Simply Psychology. Retrieved April 30, 2022, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html
Nina M Benjamin Silber, Ph.D.