You may hear the phrase "cognitive dissonance" used frequently, but what does it actually mean? I'll tell you!
What is Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is the state of mind that occurs when you are simultaneously entertaining two or more opposite ideas. This situation is stressful for your brain, so it wants to quickly pick an option to resolve the conflict. Your brain then tries to rationalize the option you chose so you can feel like you made a good decision.
Cognitive dissonance can be more generally defined as a situation where you must choose an option and rationalize it to make yourself feel better.
Who Coined the Term "Cognitive Dissonance"?
Although many psychologists have studied this phenomenon, it was first introduced to the psychology world by social psychologist Leon Festinger. His work on Social Comparison Theory, Cognitive Dissonance, and other phenomena have made him one of the most well-cited psychologists in modern history.
Is Cognitive Dissonance a Bias?
Cognitive dissonance is often discussed alongside confirmation bias, but the two are slightly different. Confirmation bias occurs when additional information confirms what you already believe - you favor and accept that information as a result of a bias. Cognitive dissonance occurs when information challenges your beliefs, and you choose to ignore it or even consider it.
Examples of Cognitive Dissonance
One classic example of cognitive dissonance is smoking. When people smoke, they are simultaneously entertaining two opposing ideas:
- Smoking makes me feel good, so smoking is good.
- Smoking harms my body and gives me cancer, so smoking is bad.
Another example would be an employer telling you to misrepresent a product to a customer:
- Morally, you don’t want to lie.
- You also don’t want to disappoint your employer.
Cognitive dissonance can also be described as a situation where you change your beliefs to rationalize your previous beliefs. The whole goal of this rationalizing is so that you can say you were technically never wrong.
For example, a cult leader in 1954 predicted the end of the world. When the world didn’t end, the cult’s followers had to choose between wanting to believe in their leader and acknowledging that the world, in fact, did not end. The cult’s followers ended up changing their beliefs and saying that their devotion to the cult was the reason the world did not end. This allowed them to continue believing in and trusting their cult leader while accepting the fact that the world had not ended.
Another more recent example of cognitive dissonance involves a group of “flat-earthers,” or people who believe that the Earth is flat. This group demonstrated cognitive dissonance when they reacted to the result of one of their own experiments. They wanted to prove that the Earth was not rotating, so they came up with a clever experiment. They said that, if the Earth was really round and spinning 360 degrees every 24 hours (or 15 degrees/hour), then a gyroscope mounted anywhere on Earth would drift 15 degrees per hour. They then invested $20,000 in an extremely accurate laser gyroscope and performed their test.
To their dismay, the expensive and accurate gyroscope did show a drift of exactly 15 degrees/hour. The flat-earthers then retried the experiment in many different ways, until eventually dropping the whole experiment altogether and disregarding their results.
These people were in a state of cognitive dissonance because:
- They believe that the Earth is flat.
- They believe in the accuracy of their experiment, which concluded that the Earth is round.
To resolve the cognitive dissonance, they disregarded the new evidence and stuck with their previous belief.
Example 1: Suspicions of Betrayal
It’s not fun to suspect your partner of cheating on you. In fact, it can feel downright uncomfortable. Many people get away with sneaking around for years because their partner “refuses to see the signs.” Really, they are failing to let in ideas that oppose what they currently think about their partner. The first signs of betrayal may conjure up the idea of the partner cheating, but it’s too uncomfortable to think that their partner could love them and could also be unfaithful. So the person decides to push away thoughts of infidelity until it’s impossible to deny the partner’s betrayal.
Example 2: Adapting To Different Types of Schooling
Not all schools teach their students the same curriculum. Material may vary depending on the type of school that the student attends, the teacher at the head of the classroom, and whether or not the school faces any restrictions from state laws. A private, religious school may teach a very different approach to science or sex ed than a public school.
Stepping outside of that school system and “unlearning” can be a scary and uncomfortable process. If you spent your entire childhood learning that evolution was simply one theory of how we came to earth, it might be a shock to your system to go to college and discover that many teachers don’t teach anything besides evolution.
It’s normal to feel uncomfortable when you have to “unlearn” this information or open your mind to allow different theories to enter. It’s not unusual to feel that one or more of your teachers may be wrong or maybe even turn some of the blame on yourself. People often resist or fight back if they are being taught new information that goes against what they already know or believe. This is cognitive dissonance, and the only way to have a successful education experience is to face these feelings head-on and keep learning.
Example 3: Guilt Over Smoking
We all know that smoking is bad for us. It’s hard to argue that a cigarette can do anything good for one’s health. And yet, over 30 million adults in the United States smoke.
It’s common for people who smoke to feel guilt when they go out for a cigarette. If they think too hard about the health risks associated with smoking, they might get downright uncomfortable. They are stuck trying to juggle two opposing thoughts: they want to smoke because it will satisfy their craving, and yet they don’t want to smoke and cause damage to their lungs. Unfortunately, addiction is powerful and can overcome a lot of the discomfort that comes from cognitive dissonance.
Example 4: Forming Positive Beliefs
Many of us form limiting beliefs throughout our lives. It can be easy and comfortable to hold onto ideas that we “can’t” do something great or that we aren’t good enough. Unfortunately, these limiting beliefs get in the way if we want to form a productive habit, set a lofty goal, or change the direction of our lives.
If you want to change your life, you will have to change your beliefs. More than that, you will have to replace old, limiting beliefs with new, positive ones. This can be a hard process for many people because they encounter a lot of cognitive dissonance. When you spend your whole life telling yourself that you’re no good, you’re going to feel mighty uncomfortable using affirmations to tell yourself that you’re worthy of achievements or that you can reach your goals.
This is the important thing to remember about cognitive dissonance. You can get through it! By recognizing that the discomfort is just a cognitive process, and not a sign that your new beliefs are wrong.
Is Cognitive Dissonance Bad?
At this point, you may have noticed a concerning trend in that people often don’t make the best decisions when in a state of cognitive dissonance. People often choose to smoke and harm their bodies. Employees often put their morals aside and follow questionable orders from their employer. Conspiracy theorists often disregard solid science that disproves their beliefs.
This happens because cognitive dissonance often puts us in a state where we are inclined to ignore our morals. This happens because of two things:
- We want to stick to the beliefs that we’ve stood by all this time.
- We have rationalized why our belief is the correct one, so we have no reason to think that it could be wrong.
When we are not aware of this process, cognitive dissonance can lead us to make poor decisions, even when the rest of the world is pleading with us to choose something else.
We want to see ourselves as good people, so our brains try to rationalize our decisions - especially when cognitive dissonance has forced us to ignore our morals. Some common rationalization techniques include:
- “I’m just following orders”
- “Other people would do this/are doing this”
- “I shouldn’t do this, but it’s for the greater good”
Sticking to Your Beliefs
Once you’ve rationalized your decision, you’re now very likely to stick by and protect that belief - even if someone uses evidence to prove you wrong.
Ethics Unwrapped  has come up with this list to describe why people don’t listen to evidence disproving their beliefs:
- Irrevocable Commitment - The stronger someone is committed to their belief, the more they will disregard evidence proving them wrong.
- Foreseeable Consequences - If the consequences of being wrong are obvious, people are more likely to refuse to accept the fact that they are wrong.
- Responsibility for Consequences - The more someone feels personally responsible for being wrong, the more likely they are to refuse to accept the fact that they are wrong.
- Effort - The more effort someone has put into taking on their belief, the more they are stuck to it and unwilling to accept any conflicting ideas.
Fighting Cognitive Dissonance
We all want to be a good person, so how do we prevent ourselves from choosing the immoral option and sticking to it when in a state of cognitive dissonance? Here are three strategies that you can use right now to combat this psychological dilemma:
- Never Ignore Guilt: Your body will tell you when you’re undergoing cognitive dissonance. You will always feel a sense of guilt when in these situations - don’t ignore that. If you ever find yourself feeling guilty, that’s your signal to step back and re-evaluate what’s going on before you make any decisions.
- Keep Track of Rationalizations: Study up on common rationalization techniques and figure out which ones you tend to use. Once you’re keeping track of which rationalizations you use most, you will become aware of what you’re doing every time you try to rationalize. This will help you to realize when you’re in a state of cognitive dissonance. Now, when you find yourself rationalizing, you will know to take a step back and re-evaluate your situation before taking action.
- Study Your Brain: Our minds like to distance ourselves from our actions whenever we do something immoral. A good way to protect yourself from letting this happen is to study up on how your brain works. Fortunately, you’re in the right place to do just that - the articles, courses, and videos on PracticalPie and PracticalPsychology are all designed to help you understand how your brain works so you can use psychology to improve your life!
Read More About Cognitive Dissonance on Reddit!
Cognitive dissonance isn't just a topic discussed in psychology departments at universities. This Reddit post about cognitive dissonance has over 400 comments and takes time to explain cognitive dissonance in easy-to-read ways:
"Just to add to this, the dissonance (uncomfortable feeling) can also occur whenever there's a mismatch beliefs/behaviors. For example, if you told yourself you need to study tonight for a test tomorrow (your belief) but you're currently on reddit or binge-watching Netflix (your behavior), that mismatch would create dissonance. So we like to resolve that dissonance before it becomes too uncomfortable (oftentimes without even being aware of it). That means either changing our behavior (getting back to studying), or changing our belief (the test won't be that hard, I'll do fine if I cram in the morning). There's lots of other interesting examples of how our behaviors cause us to change our feelings/beliefs, and one of the reasons people in cults like them so much."
Behind The Curve. Narrated by Mark K. Sargent. Directed by Daniel J. Clark. 2018. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8132700/.
"Cognitive Dissonance - Ethics Unwrapped - The University of Texas at ...." https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/cognitive-dissonance. Accessed 10 Apr. 2019.
"Explaining Attitudes from Behavior: A Cognitive Dissonance ... - Harvard." 28 May. 2015, https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/files/pegroup/files/acharyaetal2015.pdf. Accessed 10 Apr. 2019.
"The Origins of Cognitive Dissonance - Mind and Development Lab." https://minddevlab.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/The%20origins%20of%20cognitive%20dissonance.pdf. Accessed 10 Apr. 2019.