What is cognitive dissonance?
Have you ever done something you know is bad for you but tried to make excuses for your actions? This could be a sign of cognitive dissonance.
We sometimes find ourselves doing things that don’t fit with our everyday beliefs. For example, we might eat something we know isn’t good for us whilst striving to have a healthy body. Or we might end up gossiping about someone when we hold the belief that being compassionate to others is a priority. Sometimes we do this without even thinking about it. We like to hold ourselves up to certain standards, but our actions do not always match up to what we think of ourselves.
What is cognitive dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is when someone has two beliefs or behaviours that are in conflict with each other. As people tend to find a sense of comfort in consistent values and perceptions, this clash can bring about uncomfortable feelings.
Psychotherapist Brian Turner explains how cognitive dissonance can cause a stress response, bringing about anxiety or distress and causing a “vicious cycle within a person’s psyche”. He talks about how the level of stress depends on how far apart the two opposing thoughts, opinions or actions are. So, the more contradictory the cognition is, the more uncomfortable the feelings will be.
Essentially, the person is torturing themselves with their own thoughts.
Cognitive dissonance theory
Leon Festinger proposed this theory from an observational study of a cult that believed the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood. When this didn’t happen, the members at the core of the cult believed this was only the case because of their devotion to the group. Members on the outskirts of the cult were more prepared to believe they had deceived themselves, putting it down to life experience.
In Festinger’s book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, he explains that most people are driven to be consistent in their beliefs and behaviours. When there is disharmony (or dissonance) between the two, people will often try to reduce these feelings.
How can it feel and what do we do to avoid these emotions?
We might find cognitive dissonance easy to spot by the way the conflicts make us feel. The discomfort can manifest in emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, regret, or sadness. It’s tough when we do something we know doesn’t match up with our core life values; we can’t own our truth or live authentically when our sense of self is vulnerable. So we try to diminish these feelings.
The easiest way to spot signs of cognitive dissonance is by observing the way we engage in behaviours to defend or condone the behaviour. This helps to sidestep uncomfortable or stressful feelings. These actions or defence mechanisms are quite often unconscious (we do them on autopilot) and can include:
- Finding new beliefs to outweigh the old ones. This might include discrediting the person or group of people that highlighted the dissonance or seeking out new information to override the dissonant belief. An example of this might be an animal lover or socially conscious person researching the benefits of eating meat as a way to resolve internal conflict.
- Rationalise the conflicting belief. To lessen the feelings of unease, the person might find a way to rationalise their behaviour as a way of convincing themselves or others that their actions are OK.
- Avoiding the issue. This can look like hiding beliefs from others, avoiding people that remind them of the problem, or making snap judgements to play things down. Getting distracted by other things is also a way to avoid cognitive dissonance.
What causes cognitive dissonance?
We can experience cognitive dissonance any time our beliefs about ourselves and the world do not align with the way we act or behave.
Sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of a situation where these defence mechanisms might seem like the only way out of the uneasiness. Peer pressure is a good example here; we can find ourselves putting in place excuses or reasons for doing something we don’t agree with, as a way of making that behaviour more acceptable.
This is the same for decision-making. If we say no to someone or something, but yes to another, we can try to make ourselves feel better by thinking about our positive reasons for the choice. Or when we make a poor decision knowing it’s bad for us, we can try to rationalise or even avoid this behaviour. This helps us back up our choices, bringing our thoughts and behaviours into alignment.
What are some healthy strategies to lessen cognitive dissonance?
We’ve highlighted some ways our brains can attempt to turn down cognitive dissonance on their own, but we can also address the discomfort in a more mindful or conscious way. These can actually be great tools for deepening self-awareness.
Check-in with the unease and write down how you feel. Questions that can be good journaling prompts to understand cognitive dissonance better include:
- Where do I feel this in my body?
- If it had a voice, what would it say?
- If it could take a form, what would it look like?
Make a plan
You could try wondering how you may do things differently now you have an awareness of the feeling. For example, if you find yourself getting sucked into peer pressure and feeling uncomfortable as a result, you could try working on putting some good boundaries in place or feeling more comfortable about saying ‘no’.
Sometimes we may need a little extra help when it comes to working through our emotions. Speaking to a counsellor can be a great way to talk things through and get together a plan of action for the future.