Cognitive Dissonance: How Does it Influence How We Think?
Most people try their best to keep their thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs consistent with what they experience on a daily basis. But in today’s constantly changing and diverse world, this is not always possible. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling and internal tension that happens when a person holds two conflicting beliefs in their mind at the same time. People don’t like feeling cognitive dissonance, it makes us feel like hypocrites. But what exactly causes cognitive dissonance, and how does it work? How does it influence how we think and behave?
What is cognitive dissonance
What is cognitive dissonance? Starting in the late 1950s, people started to look at cognitive dissonance, particularly Leon Festinger and his students at Stanford, who wrote the book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. According to Festinger, the important factor in cognitive dissonance theory is the principle of cognitive consistency. This principle states that we, as humans, seek consistency in our beliefs and attitudes in any situation where two cognitions are inconsistent. This inconsistency causes psychological distress and discomfort internally, and so the motivation to reduce the discomfort comes about. If it persists it can lead to depression and anxiety symptoms.
Cognitive dissonance theory
In his book about cognitive dissonance theory, Festinger also determined that there are three relationships between our thoughts, or cognitions, and our actions. To function in modern society, consciously or unconsciously, humans continually adjust how their attitudes and actions communicate and interact with each other. A consonant relationship is when two cognitions or actions are consistent with each other, such as when you believe you are an honest person, and you tell the truth about a situation. An irrelevant relationship is when the two cognitions or actions don’t really have anything to do with each other, such as liking dogs and reading a book. A dissonant relationship, which is our focus, is when we have two inconsistent cognitions or actions. This could be when you think that you are an honest person, and you end up telling a lie in a situation, even if it’s just a small white lie.
This dissonant relationship is what causes the psychological stress that motivates us to change our thoughts or actions. There are two factors that determine how much the dissonance affects us, and just how motivated for change we are. The first is how important the cognition is to us. The more personal and important the thought is, the more we want to reduce the dissonance in the situation. Beliefs such as religion or political beliefs will cause greater dissonance when conflicting with our other thoughts or actions. The second is the ratio of consonant to dissonant elements of the situation. Both of these things contribute to the psychological distress of cognitive dissonance, and which we then seek to reduce and diminish.
Because of this feeling of discomfort, the person then tries to reduce the tension and psychological stress by trying to change their behavior or justify their conflicting cognition.
There can be four ways that people try to reduce their cognitive dissonance:
- Changing the behavior or the cognition. For example, if a person smokes even though they know it is bad for them, they will finally stop smoking.
- Justifying the cognition or behavior. The smoker tries to convince themselves that it’s not that bad because he cannot avoid every possible health risk out there. The person may also decide that smoking is worth it, when balancing the risks versus the rewards.
- Justifying the cognition or behavior by adding new cognitions. The smoker will try to tell themselves that they will gain weight if they try to stop smoking,
- Ignoring or denying the information or action that conflicts with their beliefs or relevant current cognitions. The person may also actively avoid situations and information likely to increase the cognitive dissonance.
Festinger also studied the theory of induced or forced compliance, which he stated was closely related to cognitive dissonance. The forced compliance theory posits that someone in a position of perceived authority can force a “lower-ranked” individual to make statements or perform acts that violate their beliefs and judgment. Festinger conducted an experiment titled Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance in 1959, on students at Stanford. The participants were asked to perform a tedious task: using one hand to turn small spools a quarter turn clockwise. The experimenters meant to find a task that absolutely no one could find enjoyable. The experimental group was given either $1 or $20 to try to convince that the participant right after them that the task was fun, and the control group was not told anything about the task. The group that was paid $1 actually believed that the task was fun at the end of the study. It was found that the subjects who were paid $1 were compelled to internalize the positive mental attitude because they had no other justification. The subjects who were paid $20 complied because of the obvious, external justification for internalizing that the task was interesting, and so they experienced a lesser degree of cognitive dissonance.The study concluded that if a person performs an action that goes against what they first thought, the belief will typically change.
Examples of cognitive dissonance
One famous example of cognitive dissonance is the fable of the Fox and the Grapes, by Aesop. In the story, the fox sees high-hanging grapes and wants desperately to be able to eat them. However, once he finds that he cannot reach them, he then convinces himself that the grapes are likely unripe and sour. Aesop claims that the moral of the story is that “a fool despises what he cannot get.” The cognitive dissonance theory claims that the fox diminished his cognitive dissonance by convincing himself that his object of desire is worthless, and adapted his internal thoughts to the situation.
Other examples of cognitive dissonance that could happen in everyday life:
- A politician you usually support and agree with supports a policy that would hurt you
- You do poorly on an exam you studied and prepared for
- Caring deeply for animals, and believing you would never hurt one, but still eating meat
- Procrastinating on finishing work, by justifying you will be able to focus after your television show
- When you believe that you are environmentally responsible, but you don’t recycle and own a gas guzzling car
- Cheating on your partner or spouse, but still believing that you are faithful
- Believing you need to lose weight, but still eating unhealthily
How we choose to resolve our internal conflicts that arise with cognitive dissonance is a good measure of our own mental health. Dealing with cognitive dissonance is actually an excellent opportunity for personal growth. Since cognitive dissonance is a person seeking consistency between their expectations and their real life, a person can work to either change their cognition or their action in order to adapt to their reality and deal with their psychological stress in healthy ways. Becoming aware of how conflicting beliefs impact your decision-making process is a great way to improve your ability to make better and faster choices.
Cooper, J. (2007) Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classic theory. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.
Festinger L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.
Festinger L., Carlsmith JM. (1959). “Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 58 (2): 203–210.
Elsie is a public health professional working in education and research. She is a lifelong learner, and is especially interested in mental and behavioral health. She loves travelling and spending time with her dog.