Cognitive dissonance is the psychological stress experienced by a person when faced with two or more conflicting beliefs, ideas, or values directly opposed to their own beliefs.
In the case of cognitive dissonance, someone will do everything possible to undo the inconsistency, making the beliefs consistent. The discomfort is caused by the person’s belief that clashes with the newly perceived information. To reduce the experienced discomfort, the person tries to resolve the contradiction and reduce the unpleasant feeling. Often this results in denial, the denial of one’s own belief, or a “golden mean” is chosen rationally.
A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
In the “Cognitive Dissonance Bible” A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), author Leon Festinger argues that people always strive for internal psychological consistency to function properly mentally. Thus, someone experiencing an internal inconsistency tends to feel uncomfortable and look for a way to ease this unpleasant feeling.
On the one hand, we can do this by adding a new perspective to the cognition that causes the psychological dissonance or avoiding circumstances and conflicting information that can increase the magnitude of the cognitive dissonance. We usually rely on defense mechanisms to reduce stress.
Dealing with the nuances of conflicting ideas or experiences is mentally stressful. To reduce that stress, people tend to engage their defense mechanisms. These could be:
Denial: In denial, we don’t admit that there is a problem (uncomfortable feeling). Instead, we’re going to make excuses or justify the denial.
Example: “I think he was wrong! Come on, it’s just like that, right?”
Projection: In projection, we recognize a negative feeling, but instead of recognizing that it is our own negative emotion, we attribute it to someone else. That is, we project it onto someone else.
Example: Suppose you are nervous because your manager has called you for an interview. You fear your dismissal and see it as brutal and terrifying. In the conversation, he indicates that he will extend your contract and that you can even count on a promotion. In this case, you have projected your fear onto your manager.
Sublimation: With sublimation, the problem (unpleasant feeling) is softened/weakened to avoid unpleasant feelings. Someone very angry tends to come up with mitigating circumstances to deal with the frustration.
Example: Your partner has cheated on you, and you feel distraught. This can’t be true, can it? To soothe your frustration, you list the fine qualities he/she has and maybe even ask yourself if you haven’t made any mistakes that could justify his / her behavior.
Rationalization: In rationalization, we come up with an excuse to lessen the uncomfortable feeling.
Example: You just had a rejection for a job application. The rationalization is: “Well, it wasn’t such a nice company,” even though you know very well that you would have loved to work there.
Of course, you can use other defense mechanisms to deal with cognitive dissonance, but these are the main ones.
What Causes Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance mainly arises from the situations below.
Enforced compliance creates dissonance between the cognition (I didn’t want to do this) and the behavior (I did it anyway). This enforced compliance occurs when a person takes an action that is inconsistent with his or her beliefs. They cannot change the behavior because the action has already taken place, so they must reduce the dissonance by re-evaluating the attitude towards what happened.
Example: A sergeant orders a soldier in a war zone to take any action against his principles. He shoots at an enemy line, killing people. He must find a way to deal with his uncomfortable feeling. He can sublimate by stating, “Otherwise, they would have shot us, so I did the right thing.” That way, he can better deal with the fact that he shot those “possibly innocent” people.
We make decisions all the time in life. We decide to get up to make a cup of coffee or to go shopping at a certain time. Many of these decisions we make daily generate dissonance because you have to make choices. It’s one or the other.
The options to choose from have both advantages and disadvantages. If you make a choice, you exclude the other option and thus cannot take advantage of the benefits of that option. In addition, you also choose the disadvantages of the chosen alternative that you have to accept.
Festinger argues that people have several ways to reduce the cognitive dissonance caused when making a decision. One way is to change the behavior. As noted earlier, this is often very difficult, so people often use different mental maneuvers. A common way to reduce dissonance is to increase the chosen alternative’s attractiveness and decrease the attractiveness of the rejected one. This is called “spreading the alternatives.”
Example: Suppose you have to choose a day at the beach for which you have to drive an hour there and an hour back, or a day at an amusement park nearby. Both have advantages but also disadvantages. On the one hand, you love to laze on the beach, but on the other hand, it also saves a lot of driving time if you choose to go to the amusement park.
Either way, you experience cognitive dissonance. If you choose the beach, you have to drive back a long way if you are lazy from the sun. On the other hand, the amusement park is not really a place to relax. You end up choosing the beach after coming up with several extra benefits so you can take the travel time for granted.
We tend to value the achievement of goals for which we have to fight the hardest. This is because dissonance would arise if we put a lot of effort into something to achieve, and then it turns out we can’t get it done.
When we fight for a diploma for years and continue to fail the re-exams at the end of the journey, a feeling of unease naturally arises. In order to avoid the following dissonance, we try to convince ourselves that our effort is not that bad and that it was not worth it anyway. So we try to kid ourselves so as not to feel uncomfortable. This method of reducing dissonance is known as “effort justification.”
Example: after you have studied hard for a test in which you had confidence in a good grade, the result turns out to be disappointing. One way to lessen the disappointment (dissonance) is to say to ourselves, “Well, at least it’s not even worse.”
Examples of cognitive dissonance
Situations in which cognitive dissonance can occur include:
Smoking despite being aware of the adverse health effects of tobacco use.
You know very well the detrimental effect that your pack of cigarettes a day is having on your health. You breathe heavily, you are out of breath halfway up the stairs and you cough yourself to death. Yet you light up a cigarette at every opportunity. In this example, you convince yourself of the “need” to light up a cigarette, even though you know that the need is not there and that it is terribly unhealthy.
As a health coach, you tout a healthy diet and lifestyle to your followers on Instagram, while opening your second bag of chips of the day and drinking a can of beer. When you are caught, you come up with 1001 reasons to justify your behavior.
This type of cognitive dissonance is called hypocrisy. When you are caught, however, this situation can make you feel extremely uncomfortable. It’s not even so much the fact that you’ve been caught that gives you an uncomfortable feeling, it’s more that while you were eating and drinking you were already aware of your wrong behavior.
You’ve just read a hugely impressive medical study in which all the researchers involved convincingly point out that corona injections are unsafe. Then you see on the news that the major scientific authorities claim the opposite, waving a stack of papers and saying they have the evidence in hand.
In this example of cognitive dissonance, your opinion had just been reinforced and substantiated by a number of scientists. Then you see on television that they seem to be wrong. Who do you believe then? The scientists in the study or the “authorities” on TV? This dichotomy in the mind is a typical example of cognitive dissonance and very topical during the pandemic.
As an environmentally aware citizen you take your responsibility: you separate your waste, you do not live beyond your means and you do not go on excessive vacations. Yet that Dodge RAM SRT is very tempting.
In this example of cognitive dissonance, you invent reasons to justify your purchase, which really goes against all your principles. It is a company car and it comes in handy when doing home improvement (even though you hardly ever do any of those jobs). You know it’s nonsense to buy such a battleship, but of course it’s also pretty cool to accelerate at the traffic lights with such a roaring engine.
Dealing with cognitive dissonance
Everyone deals with cognitive dissonance differently. There are countless degrees of uncomfortable feeling. These gradations depend on the values we assign to our principles. In most cases, most people are able to cope with significant dissonance and do not experience the tensions predicted by the theory.
People who are mentally “inflexible” or have strong values can experience considerable stress when faced with conflicting thoughts. In many cases, the challenge for them is to adjust their expectations and set their principles “to some extent” aside.
Over the years, much research has been done on cognitive dissonance, with interesting and sometimes unexpected findings. It is a theory with very broad applications that shows that we strive for consistency between attitudes and behaviors and that we do not shy away from using defense mechanisms to reduce discomfort.
The experience of cognitive dissonance can be properly tested in practice. From a scientific point of view, this is more difficult because, of course, we cannot physically perceive cognitive dissonance, and so it cannot be measured objectively.
The concept of dissonance is also quite vague. Is it a perception as “cognitive” suggests? Or is it a subjective feeling about the perception? When you look up the definition of dissonance, you will also find the term “discord” and this is perhaps the best way to see it: different sounds (conflicting thoughts/feelings) that cause a cacophony (cognitive dissonance).