Few concepts are as intriguing and universally applicable as cognitive dissonance. This psychological phenomenon affects almost every aspect of our lives, from the trivial choices we make daily to the significant decisions that can alter the course of our future. But what exactly is cognitive dissonance, and how does it manifest in our lives?
What is cognitive dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological theory developed by Leon Festinger in 1957. It refers to the mental discomfort or tension experienced when an individual holds two or more contradictory beliefs, values, or attitudes simultaneously. This internal inconsistency prompts people to take steps to reduce the dissonance, often by changing one or more of the conflicting cognitions.
6 Types of cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance can manifest in various ways, and understanding its different types can help us identify and address it more effectively:
- Belief disconfirmation. This occurs when a person’s deeply held belief is challenged by new evidence, leading to either the rejection of the new information or modification of the belief.
- Induced compliance. Here, dissonance arises when people are persuaded to engage in behaviours that are contrary to their beliefs or values.
- Effort justification. When people invest significant time, effort, or resources into an endeavour and the outcome is less rewarding than expected, they may inflate the value of the outcome to justify the effort spent.
- Choice justification. After making a difficult decision between two equally appealing options, individuals may amplify the positive aspects of the chosen option and downplay the benefits of the rejected one to alleviate dissonance.
- Moral dilemmas. This type occurs when individuals engage in actions that conflict with their moral or ethical principles.
- Post-decision dissonance. Similar to choice justification, this occurs after the decision has been made and involves seeking further justification for the choice, even when it is irreversible.
Real-world examples of cognitive dissonance
- Smoking and health. A smoker who is aware of the health risks associated with smoking experiences cognitive dissonance because the act conflicts with the desire to be healthy. To resolve this, they might either quit smoking or downplay the health risks.
- Environmental concerns. Someone who is environmentally conscious but continues to use single-use plastics experiences dissonance due to the clash between their environmental values and their actions.
- Political beliefs. In politics, cognitive dissonance is prevalent when someone identifies strongly with a political party but disagrees with some of its policies.
The impact of cognitive dissonance on decision-making
Cognitive dissonance plays a crucial role in decision-making processes. The discomfort it causes can serve as a catalyst for change, pushing individuals to make choices that align more closely with their beliefs or values. In some cases, this can lead to positive life changes, such as adopting healthier habits or leaving a toxic relationship. But the drive to resolve dissonance can sometimes result in hasty or ill-considered decisions, as the immediate relief from discomfort becomes a priority.
The phenomenon can contribute to a cycle of self-justification, where one bad decision leads to rationalisations that pave the way for further poor choices. But it can also lead to poor decision-making if individuals choose the path of least resistance, such as ignoring facts or rationalising their choices. This is why understanding cognitive dissonance is vital; it equips us with the awareness needed to navigate these psychological complexities more effectively.
Strategies for managing cognitive dissonance
- Self-awareness. Being aware of the dissonance is the first step in managing it effectively. Acknowledge the conflicting beliefs or attitudes and assess their validity.
- Seek information. Gather more information to make an informed decision. Be cautious of confirmation bias, where you only seek information that supports your existing beliefs.
- Make a change. Sometimes, the best way to resolve cognitive dissonance is to make a change. Whether it’s quitting a bad habit or adopting a new viewpoint, taking action can alleviate the mental discomfort.
Cognitive dissonance is an integral part of the human experience, influencing our actions, decisions, and even our relationships. While it can be uncomfortable, it also serves as a mechanism for growth and change. By understanding the concept and its various types, we can make more informed decisions and live more authentically, aligning our actions with our beliefs and values. Understanding cognitive dissonance can not only help us make better decisions but also foster empathy and tolerance towards others, recognising that everyone is engaged in their own internal tug-of-war between conflicting beliefs and values.
Holly Thompson, PhD is a clinical psychologist specialising in cognitive behavioural therapy and the psychology of decision-making.