Cognitive dissonance is when a person holds two related but contradictory cognitions, or thoughts. The ‘dissonance’ (a lack of agreement) between two contradictory ideas, or between an idea and a behaviour, creates discomfort.

Cognitive-Dissonance-819x1024 What does Cognitive dissonance mean?

This is particularly true if the disparity between their beliefs and behaviours involves something that is central to their sense of self. 

Cognitive dissonance can affect people in many ways. The effects may relate to the discomfort of the dissonance itself or the defence mechanisms a person adopts to deal with it.

If a person finds themselves in a situation where they have to do something that they don’t agree with, they’ll experience discomfort.

The internal discomfort and tension of cognitive dissonance could contribute to stress , regret, embarrassment, anxiety, sadness, shame or trauma. 

People who experience dissonance but have no way to resolve it may also feel powerless or guilty.

For example, behaving in ways that are not aligned with your personal values may result in intense feelings of discomfort. Your behaviour contradicts not just the beliefs you have about the world, but also the beliefs that you have about yourself.

Leon Festinger first proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance in his 1957 book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. 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.

Signs of Cognitive Dissonance

Everyone experiences cognitive dissonance to some degree, but that doesn’t mean that it is always easy to recognise. Some signs that what you are feeling might be related to dissonance include:

  • Feeling uncomfortable before doing something or making a decision
  • Trying to justify or rationalize a decision you’ve made or action you have taken
  • Feeling embarrassed or ashamed about something you’ve done and trying to hide your actions from other people
  • Experiencing guilt or regret about something you’ve done in the past
  • Doing things because of social pressure or a fear of missing out (FOMO), even if it wasn’t something you wanted to do

This is why it is helpful be aware of it

Cognitive dissonance can be a tool for personal and social change. Drawing a person’s attention to the dissonance between their behaviour and their values may increase their awareness of the inconsistency and empower them to act.

Cognitive dissonance is not a mental health condition. A person does not necessarily need treatment for it, but if a person finds that they have difficulty stopping a behaviour or thinking pattern that is causing them distress, they can seek support.

Examples of cognitive dissonance:

Forced Compliance

Sometimes you might find yourself engaging in behaviours that are opposed to your own beliefs due to external expectations at work, school, or in a social situation.

This might involve going along with something due to peer pressure or doing something at work to avoid getting fired.

You want to be healthy, but you don’t exercise regularly or eat a nutritious diet.

You feel guilty as a result.

Smoking

  • Conflict: Many people smoke even though they know it is harmful to their health. The magnitude of the dissonance will be higher in people who highly value their health.
  • Cognitive dissonance: A person may dislike the physical side effects of smoking but feel the act of smoking is relaxing and helps in other ways, such as alleviating their stress.
  • Resolving cognitive dissonance: They may use nicotine replacement therapy, such as gum or patches, to feel the effects of nicotine with fewer adverse effects. This may help them cut down or quit smoking.

Eating meat

The following demonstrates how eating meat can result in cognitive dissonance:

  • Conflict: Some people who view themselves as animal lovers eat meat and may feel discomfort when they think about where their meat comes from. Some researchers refer to this as the “meat paradox.”
  • Cognitive dissonance: A person may enjoy the taste of the meat but cannot afford ethical produce. They may feel guilty that they cannot afford meat from more humane sources.
  • Resolving cognitive dissonance: A person may choose to consume less meat and consider meat substitutes, such as tofu.

How to help minimise Cognitive Dissonance

Adding More Beliefs to Outweigh Dissonant Beliefs

People who learn that greenhouse gas results in global warming might experience feelings of dissonance if they drive a gas-guzzling 4×4 vehicle. To reduce this dissonance, they may seek out new information that overrides the belief that greenhouse gasses contribute to global warming.

Changing Beliefs

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, such as their religion.

  • Adopting beliefs or ideas to help justify or explain away the conflict between their beliefs or behaviours. This can sometimes involve blaming other people or outside factors.
  • Hiding beliefs or behaviours from other people. People may feel ashamed of their conflicting beliefs and behaviours, hiding the disparity from others to minimise feelings of shame and guilt.
  • Only seeking out information that confirms existing beliefs. This phenomenon, known as confirmation bias, affects the ability to think critically about a situation but helps minimise feelings of dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance Conclusion

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.