Cognitive dissonance (CD) takes place when multiple conflicting cognitions contradict one another leading to feelings of mental discomfort. Such cognitions may involve thought patterns, beliefs, attitudes, ideas & behaviors.
What Is Cognitive Dissonance (CD)?
It refers to the mental conflict and discomfort that occurs from having conflicting and contradictory attitudes, values and beliefs. CD often acts as a motivational factor as it encourages the person to resolve the distress. It is a social psychology theory which occurs when there is no alignment in our beliefs and behaviors due to contradictions driven by certain actions. This can result in stress, anxiety, tension and feelings of uneasiness which a person may try to alleviate by denying information that challenges their current beliefs or by rationalizing, justifying or giving excuses. Cognitive disequilibrium or dissonance “is a state that occurs when people face obstacles to goals, interruptions, contradictions, incongruities, anomalies, uncertainty, and salient contrasts,” explains a 2012 research paper.
According to Mind Journal, cognitive dissonance occurs when two or more cognitive elements are inconsistent & incompatible. This can cause negative psychological experiences or aversive cognitive conflict, known as dissonance. As this tends to cause discomfort or distress, the person may attempt to change certain beliefs to reduce the negative feelings. It is believed that new beliefs or cognitions will be more compatible and consistent which can rationalize their change in beliefs and attitude. However, the person may also avoid or reject new information or may even deny the existence of any such psychological conflict or resort to defense mechanisms to cope with the discomfort, while attempting to maintain order and stability in their perceptions of self, others and the society at large.
CD “is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting elements of knowledge. CD is among the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology. It is well known that \this discomfort is usually resolved by devaluing and discarding a conflicting piece of knowledge,” explains a 2013 study 1 . For instance, people who drink alcohol regularly (behavior) are aware (cognition) that alcohol can cause addiction and multiple mental and physical health problems, yet they keep consuming alcohol, leading to a state of mental distress.
Prevalence Of Cognitive Dissonance
The prevalence of this condition is not yet clear and most people usually don’t report it or may not experience severe discomfort to seek professional help. Although it is believed that dissonance is commonly experienced regularly, it may not be as widespread as anticipated. Most people do not experience serious or any discomfort at every conflicting thoughts or beliefs they may have. Using a specific scale, researchers 2 analyzed “the presence of dissonance segments,” in people, particularly customers and found that a “significant minority of respondents experienced dissonance.”
A 1998 study 3 states that a state of dissonance may sustain for around 2 weeks and can be re-established by evoking the initial inconsistency. “Individuals can react to dissonance through a variety of cognitive alterations which reinstate consistency. The choice of response is a function of its salience and the difficulty in its execution,” adds the study.
Cognitive Dissonance Theory
“Cognitive dissonance has been one of the most enduring and successful theories in the history of social psychology,” explains recent research 4 . The theory was originally developed by American psychologist Leon Festinger in his book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, published in 1957. According to Festinger, we tend to experience stress and discomfort when we hold on to contradictory beliefs or when our actions or behavior conflict our knowledge, beliefs and attitudes. He also observed that individuals attempt to resolve the dissonance through different strategies and this drive to reduce the discomfort is known as the principle of cognitive consistency. A research paper 5 explains “According to Festinger, individuals seek to have psychological consistency such that thoughts, beliefs, values and actions usually coincide and are supported by each other.”
The study adds “This experience is termed cognitive consonance and allows for mental equilibrium. Equilibrium, a condition in which there is balance, allows for harmony, and low levels of anxiety, discomfort, shame or guilt.” However, it should be noted that CD is not instinctive or an automatic function as the individual must be aware of the opposing cognitive elements causing discomfort. The experience and intensity of cognitive dissonance varies from person to person. While some of us may have a lower tolerance for inconsistency, mental conflict and uncertainty resulting in higher levels of CD, others may have a higher tolerance and may require less consistency. There are certain elements which affect the intensity of CD in a person, such as:
1. Type Of Cognitions
If a person has strong personal beliefs, then it can cause serious dissonance.
2. Value of cognitions
When a person holds certain beliefs in high esteem, then it can lead to intense dissonance
3. Size of the disparity
When there is a significant inconsistency in contradictory beliefs, it can cause substantial cognitive dissonance.
As per a recent 2020 study 6 , CD is regarded as a state of aversive arousal identified as the cognitive dissonance state (CDS). “Just as hunger is an aversive state driving animals to find food in order to reduce their discomfort, the CDS is considered to be an aversive state that drives humans to resolve inconsistency in order to reduce the state,” explains the study.
According to Festinger’s theory, when an individual is exposed to new information which challenges their long held beliefs, or behaves in a specific way that goes against their own self-image, they will be driven to resolve the accompanying negative emotions to experience cognitive consonance. According to CD theory, cognitive consonance 7 occurs when two or more cognitions are consistent and compatible with each other. It is the exact opposite of the concept of cognitive dissonance and refers to a mental and emotional state of internal balance, consistency and harmony occuring due to compatibility between an individual’s beliefs, attitudes, knowledge and behavior.
According to a study 8 , a person may experience consonances when they are in a state of complete harmony and feels pleasure. This cognitive state does not drive goal-seeking behavior to reach cognitive equilibrium. This state exists in the equilibrium, in a positive state of mind and is typically absent when there is internal or mental conflict or when a person is in a state of deficiency or need.
Understanding Cognitive Dissonance
Festinger’s theory indicates that “our preferences are modulated by the mere act of choosing. A choice between two similarly valued alternatives creates psychological tension (cognitive dissonance) that is reduced by a postdecisional reevaluation of the alternatives,” explains a 2017 study 9 . A person can often experience cognitive dissonance everytime they lie, if they have a self-image of being a straight-forward, honest and sincere person. On the other hand, if someone considers themselves to be an animal lover or an environmental enthusiast, then they may experience distress while consuming meat or fish as they typically do not support the action of killing animals. This is known as the meat paradox 10 . Another instance of CD can be someone who considers them to be a fitness enthusiast may experience psychological conflict and guilt when they miss a workout session or have frequent cheat meals. In case of the last example, this causes a cognitive discord due to contradictions in thought (trying to be healthy) and behavior or action (eating unhealthy foods).
Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory indicates that all of us are driven to have psychologically consistent ideas and internal harmony so that we can experience effective cognitive functioning. When we experience inconsistencies in our personal values and beliefs, we may try to make particular changes to rationalize certain behaviors that are motivated by psychological stress and discomfort. Festinger believed that some individuals may try to reduce dissonance by believing their thoughts and perceptions in an even stronger manner. This can cause confirmation bias, as trying to understand opposing thoughts, making sense of them and accepting new information may be difficult, challenging and highly stressful.
Cognitive Dissonance Vs Hypocrisy
Although both the concepts may appear similar, CD and hypocrisy are very different experiences. Cognitive dissonance refers to a psychological state involving distress and discomfort arising from contradictory beliefs or behaviors. Hypocrisy involves beliefs and principles that a person claims to have which contradicts with their behaviors and actions. Dissonance refers to having two distinct beliefs that tend to contradict each other in some way. Hypocrisy, on the other hand, refers to publicly claiming that you have certain beliefs but in reality having different beliefs or behaving in a way that contradicts your own publicly-established beliefs. Hypocrisy tends to occur consistently whereas CD may occur rarely based on specific situations. Hypocrisy involves an element or an implication of lying; while CD involves avoidance of new information that challenges our beliefs, but can be resolved through understanding.
However, it should be noted that although CD can be problematic when unaddressed, it is not necessarily a negative experience or a character flaw. In fact, when effectively addressed, it leads to opportunities for growth, behavior change and eliminating cognitive inconsistencies.
Signs Of Cognitive Dissonance
All of us experience CD in some way and to varying degrees. However, it can be difficult to identify as dissonance can lead to a wide range of mixed emotions with us. Here are some of the common signs of dissonance that you should look out for:
- Feeling mental or emotional distress without any clear reason
- Feeling discomfort or compelled while making a decision, behaving in a particular way or doing something
- Experiencing inner conflicts and contradictions while deciding about a debatable topic
- Engaging in certain behaviors or actions due to peer pressure or social anxiety (fear of missing out) that contradicts your principles or beliefs
- Feeling a strong sense of regret or guilt about past decisions, behaviors or actions
- Feeling confused and lacking clarity
- Being mistakenly identified as an hypocrite by others
- Rationalizing or justifying decisions or actions that you find doubtful
- Feeling ashamed or embarrassed
- Attempting to hide certain behaviors or actions from others
- Having awareness of contradictory views or beliefs but confused about how to resolve them
Causes Of Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is typically caused by the occurrence of certain situations which can create inner conflicts. Here are the 3 main factors believed to cause CD:
1. Forced compliance behavior
When we are forced to engage in activities or behave in a particular manner that is inconsistent with our beliefs and we do not want to engage with, it is known as forced compliance. A dissonance occurs between our behavior and our cognition as we act unwillingly & reluctantly, due to external factors, like social expectations, peer pressure etc. Most of us often tend to act or behave in ways that are not in alignment with our beliefs while at work, school or at a social gathering. However, this can cause significant mental or emotional discomfort that can last long after the moment has passed.
2. Making decisions
We need to make numerous choices and decisions on a daily basis. However, decision making can often cause cognitive dissonance, especially when two choices are similar and equally attractive. Due to the theory of opportunity cost 11 , we may feel distressed at the loss of the second alternative when we choose the first alternative. For instance, imagine that you have been offered a job with an impressive pay package and benefits, but it is located in a remote area away from your family and friends. If you refuse the job offer, you can enjoy your current life with your loved ones, but you will repent losing out on a job that offered such high salary; on the other hand, if you accept the job you will miss your loved ones and your normal personal life even though you may make a lot of money.
Both choices have particular advantages and disadvantages and hence the opportunity cost for both options may be high. Choosing a particular option forces us to accept the disadvantages of the option we have chosen, while missing out on the advantages of the alternative we did not choose. This leads to disequilibrium, dissonance and discomfort. But when we have already made a decision, we need to stick with it and justify our choice to eliminate feelings of distress and discomfort. We tell ourselves that the decision we made was the best and the right one, even though it may or may not be so in reality.
Cognitive dissonance is also associated with and is aroused by effort. We assign high value to accomplishments and possessions that require the most effort. However, when we have put a great effort in achieving something, then realize that the accomplishment was not really that special or view it negatively, then it can cause serious cognitive dissonance. Perhaps this is why we often shift our focus into the process of achieving the goal. We convince ourselves that all the effort was not necessarily wasted as we have learned some valuable lessons from it or some other things that makes us feel better about investing all the time and effort into accomplishing something we don’t really consider valuable anymore.
As a matter of fact, we may even convince ourselves that our accomplishment is indeed worthwhile to reduce the dissonance. This is identified as effort justification. One 2018 study 12 explains effort justification as “when people justify their past efforts by increasing their liking of objects that they obtained through those efforts.” In fact, “the more effort is exerted to obtain things, the more value they are assigned retrospectively,” adds the study.
4. Exposure to new Information
Being exposed to new information that contradicts our beliefs can also result in feelings of dissonance. When we hold on to certain beliefs for a long period of time and new evidence emerges that contradicts them, then we are usually unable to accept the new information as it challenges our personal values. We may reject or discredit the information or try to convince ourselves & justify our own (false) beliefs to maintain inner harmony. However, regardless of what coping mechanism we may employ, information that proves our beliefs and perspectives wrong will cause substantial psychological discomfort and distress.
How Cognitive Dissonance Affects Us?
Cognitive dissonance may cause feelings of mental distress, unease and discomfort. In fact, studies 13 have found that CD can have long-term behavioral effects. As we tend to intrinsically avoid discomfort, dissonance can affect our:
- Beliefs & attitudes
- Personal values
- Actions & behaviors
- Emotional & mental health
Cognitive disequilibrium may also lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, embarrassment, shame, guilt, regret, sadness and even depression in rare cases. It can also affect how we perceive and think about our own selves, causing poor self-image, low sense of self-worth and self-esteem. As most of us try hard to avoid feelings of such mental and emotional distress, it can negatively influence our thoughts, behaviors and decisions. This can result in adoption of certain unhealthy behaviors and attitudes as a coping mechanism. As a consequence, a person experiencing intense degrees of CD can try to:
- Hide or conceal their beliefs and behaviors from others, including loved ones due to shame
- Blame others people or external factors for their own drawbacks
- Reinforce their beliefs by seeking out information that confirms their thoughts and personal values. It is known as confirmation bias 14 .
- Be defensive or reject new information that contradicts their strongly held beliefs
- Avoid or ignore debates, conversations or talking about certain topics
- Justify their decisions and behaviors constantly using rationality & logic
- Avoid or discredit scientific information, facts, data or even experts’ or doctors’ opinions on causes of dissonance
These can empower the person to hold their beliefs and maintain their behavior even if they may not completely agree with it, further increasing the intensity and impact of cognitive dissonance. According to one 2001 study 15 , dissonance can have a significant impact on our interpersonal perception & reassertion as CD “has been definitively shown to alter beliefs or perceptions of an individual.” It may also cause physiological arousal as well. Moreover, one 2017 study 9 found that “decisions induce preference changes.” Thoughts and choices related to CD can trigger a significant negative frontocentral evoked response which has been found to be involved in general performance monitoring. It may also cause behavior modification or change as it can enable an individual to align their beliefs and behaviors and reduce psychological distress.
Cognitive disequilibrium also helps us analyze our own thoughts, perceptions,values, ideas and actions for accomplishing cognitive compatibility and consistency. It can encourage us to face and overcome negative beliefs, difficult attitudes and problematic actions. As a consequence, we can create positive and beneficial changes in ourselves and our lives, such as addressing health issues, emotion regulation issues, addiction etc.
Coping With Cognitive Dissonance
There are certain ways that can enable us to reduce and resolve contradictions in cognitions which can also relieve feelings of discomfort, distress and dissonance. This can include different strategies, like changing existing thought patterns & beliefs, accepting new information with an open mind and challenging intrusive, unwelcome thoughts. Here are a few effective ways to overcome cognitive dissonance:
1. Change your attitudes
One of the simplest ways to resolve CD is to modify some of your beliefs, principles, personal values, attitudes and behavior to bring consistency among them. When you are aware that a particular belief or behavior is causing dissonance 16 , then changing that belief or behavior can not only reduce dissonance but also increase cognitive consonance. But changing long-held beliefs and well-learned behaviors, such as political or religious beliefs or addicting behaviors, can be challenging to say the least. According to a 2018 study, “negative emotions would be inversely related to attitude change, whereas positive emotions would be positively related to attitude change in the induced compliance paradigm.”
2. Be open to new information
Seek and be more accepting towards new information that can offset or counterbalance your contradictory beliefs. Instead of rejecting or discrediting information that challenges your opinions, acquire knowledge that helps you to gain new perspectives. Supportive knowledge that overrides beliefs causing cognitive dissonance can help to reduce it and improve your cognitions. “It is so important for everyone, scientist or layman, to re-evaluate their beliefs when presented with new information, even if their brains are asking them to stand pat,” explains a 2017 study 17 . The researchers add that being aware of how & why we hold a specific belief is the first step, “then you have to look at the barriers to changing your mind, and consider the positive outcomes that could result if you did,”.
3. Question the value of conflicting cognitions
Another effective way to deal with distress and discomfort associated with CD is to analyze and lower the value we assign to our cognitions – thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and principles. Most of us tend to give excessive importance to our thoughts and beliefs than necessary which can create a lot of issues in our life. However, when we reduce the importance of such dissonant cognitions, we can see life from a new perspective and realize that there is more than one way to do something. According to a 2009 study 18 , “One of the biggest misconceptions people often harbor is that belief is a static, intellectual concept. Nothing can be farther from truth! Beliefs are a choice. We have the power to choose our beliefs. Our beliefs become our reality.”
Everyone Experiences Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance affects most of us as we tend to have different beliefs that often contradict each other in our regular decisions and daily lives. It also plays a crucial role in influencing how we think, behave and act in our relationships, social settings and personal lives. CD can also positively help us in changing distorted beliefs and making better decisions 19 in life. By being aware of our contradictory beliefs and behavior, we can address dissonance and align our cognitions to experience cognitive consonance.
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