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We all like to think of ourselves in certain ways. We consider ourselves to be truthful, hard-working, health-conscious, and in control. But our actions don’t always line up with what we think to be true about ourselves.
This kind of incongruence — called cognitive dissonance — is extremely uncomfortable, and we’ll go to almost any length to avoid it. Without our awareness, cognitive dissonance can have us acting and feeling pretty out-of-character. Learning what cognitive dissonance is, why it’s so powerful, and how to manage it can put us back in the driver’s seat.
What is cognitive dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is a little different than its evil twin, hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is when we say one thing and do another. Our thoughts and actions don’t align — and we know it. But because we want the benefits of presenting ourselves a certain way, we don’t mind the inconsistency in our behavior.
Cognitive dissonance means that we feel ambivalent — we genuinely have a disconnect between two conflicting beliefs. That disconnect makes us feel uncomfortable, driving us to resolve it.
What is cognitive dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is the psychological tension we feel as we try to reckon with two (or more) opposing pieces of information. We generally try to eliminate this dissonance by taking a new, consonant action or by dismissing the incongruent information.
Unlike hypocrisy, cognitive dissonance presents a personal risk. It threatens our identity and our sense of self. It’s important to recognize what it is and what it feels like, because human beings will do some pretty wild things to make it go away.
The theory behind cognitive dissonance
In 1956, psychologist Jack Brehm observed that when people are given a choice between two similar items, they tend to believe that the item they chose is objectively better. This became known as the “free-choice paradigm.” If the items were basically equal, people would begin to invent “advantages” for the one they chose.
In order to explain this phenomenon, psychologist Leon Festinger presented the idea of cognitive dissonance. He explained that in order to maintain our sense of identity, we’re motivated to reduce inconsistencies in our self-image. Festinger proposed this hypothesis in his 1957 book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. His research on what causes cognitive dissonance and how we react to it has become critical to the field of social psychology.
What causes cognitive dissonance?
Dissonant cognitions are usually caused by a mismatch in beliefs and behaviors. Festinger’s theory identified three primary triggers, or causes, of cognitive dissonance: forced compliance, decision-making, and effort. Here’s an explanation of these triggers, along with a few examples of cognitive dissonance in action.
1. Induced compliance
If a person finds themselves in a situation where they have to do something that they don’t agree with, they’ll experience discomfort. Since they can’t escape the action, they attempt to re-establish their reasons for doing it in a way that makes the action acceptable.
In the 1950s laboratory experiments on cognitive dissonance, participants had to complete a series of boring tasks. They were then given either $1 or $20 to tell a person in the waiting room that the task was fun. The ones that received a dollar were more likely to rate the activity highly.
If the task was boring, what motivated their attitude change? Their brain needed to create cognitive consistency. Because the task wasn’t validated by a sufficient monetary reward, they made up an internal motivation that justified the lie.
When we say “yes” to a choice, whether it’s as small as what to order for lunch or as big as where to live, we have to say “no” to something else. This can be a difficult decision when the choices feel equally good or equally bad. To ease the psychological pain of rejecting one choice (FOMO, anyone?) we often start justifying our decision. When we do this by thinking up positives for our choice and negatives for the other option, it’s called the “spreading of alternatives.”
Say that you have a choice between going out with friends and staying home for the evening. You had fully planned to go out, but now it’s raining. You think “Ah, I might as well stay in. I can see them another time, and I’ll save money by staying home.”
You call your friends and tell them that you’re going to stay home, only to be met with resistance. “What? We already bought your ticket. You have to come!” You agree, thinking, “Well, I don’t want them to be mad at me, and I don’t want to waste the ticket. It’s probably good for me to go out anyway since I’ve been sitting at a desk all week.”
This rationalizing is your attempt at dissonance reduction. Your brain feels better when you can align your behavior with your values. When you were going to stay home, you felt good about saving money. When you decided to go out, you decided that it aligned with the value you place on your health and your relationships.
As human beings, we place a higher value on outcomes that took a significant amount of time, effort, or resources to achieve. That’s why we tend to associate cost with quality, since we rationalize that “we get what we pay for.”
When the effort doesn’t seem to be “worth it,” we often make up reasons why it was better than the alternative. Since we can’t go back and change the amount of time and energy we’ve already expended, we can at least tell ourselves that we benefitted indirectly from it.
For example, you want to start working out. You go to the gym and sign up for a premium plan with a personal trainer. A couple of months later, you’re telling your friend over brunch about your progress and how it was worth all the money you spent. They look at you, shocked when they hear what you paid.
“Really?” they say. “That much? You know, you could have gotten the same package at my gym for half the price.”
Well, you can’t go back and “un-work out” — and neither can you demand a refund because someone else charges less. So you do the next best thing. Rather than making yourself feel bad about your hasty (and expensive) choice, you quickly list all the positives. You love your trainer, the gym is close to your house, you got a discount for paying in advance, and you probably wouldn’t have gone so diligently if you had spent less, anyway.
This effort justification helps to validate the benefits of the choice you made. You want to keep feeling good about that choice, so you stack the reasons in your favor.
The effects of cognitive dissonance
When we're in a state of cognitive dissonance, we typically do one of three things to try to resolve it. We change our behavior, we change our beliefs, or we do some mental and emotional contortion to try to justify why things are the way they are.
By far, the healthiest intervention for dissonance is to take a consonant action. We know that reducing our screen time, for example, is beneficial for us, but we spend hours a day on the computer. We can reduce that internal conflict by cutting back on screen time, taking optical breaks regularly, or wearing blue-light blocking glasses.
But what happens when we can’t take that action? We then try to minimize the information’s significance. We may say “Well, my job requires lots of computer time. I can’t do much about that. Anyway, this one website (out of fifty) said it’s probably fine, so I won’t worry.”
Over time, living out of integrity with our values begins to take its toll on our psychological well-being and mental health. We begin to get frustrated, embarrassed, and defensive about our behavior. Our values are like a set of coordinates, guiding us towards being at peace with our decisions. If our coordinates are just a little bit off, we may find that life no longer looks the way we want it to.
What are the signs of cognitive dissonance?
There’s no flashing red light that tells you when you’re not in alignment with your values. We experience dissonance internally. Here are some signs that you’re compensating for incongruence:
- You’re often defensive about your choices
- There are conversations or topics that you’re avoiding
- You’re angry, irritable, or frustrated
- You feel jealous or bitter about other people’s good news, or feel compelled to explain why it hasn’t happened for you
- You spend a lot of time or energy justifying your actions, even when no one’s questioning them
- People that know you well are surprised by your statements or behavior
- You try to convince others that your way of thinking is the right one
- You’re minimizing potentially dangerous or unhealthy consequences of your behavior
- You experience feelings of discomfort when talking about yourself or with someone who disagrees with you
- You react to gentle, constructive, or perceived criticism with hostility
Is cognitive dissonance the same as cognitive bias?
Cognitive dissonance and cognitive bias are related, but distinct. Cognitive dissonance is what we feel in response to a discrepancy between our thoughts and actions. It’s the psychological discomfort of being out of alignment.
Cognitive bias is the tendency to process information in the light of our own experiences. Our brains rely on patterns, past experiences, and mental shortcuts to process information quickly. That means that when we take in new information, we don’t interpret it objectively. We see it through the filter of our existing beliefs.
Cognitive dissonance can affect our cognitive biases, and vice versa. Typically, when we feel psychological dissonance, it’s because one of these patterns of thought is being challenged. We may develop these biases to avoid discomfort or changing our behavior.
Social psychologists have uncovered dozens of cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, fundamental attribution error, and the sunk-cost fallacy. You can learn more about cognitive biases in this article.
How to reduce cognitive dissonance
Your brain will attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance on its own — but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have any say over the process. Here are four steps to noticing and dealing with psychological discomfort:
1. Check in with the feeling
Cognitive dissonance is usually accompanied by a physical sensation. When you feel either physical or psychological discomfort, make a note of it to yourself. You don't necessarily have to address it in the moment. Just keep it in mind for when you have time to journal or discuss it.
For example, you decide that you're going to start drinking eight glasses of water a day. But when you go out for lunch, you order a soda. Your friend teases you, saying “Did you drink your eight glasses of water already?”
You start to feel a little tension in your stomach. Even though you know they're joking, you're a little bit annoyed.
2. Don’t run away from it
Instead of feeling defensive, dig into the information that your response gives you. When you had that feeling, what was your first inclination? When did it happen? What triggered it? Understanding what caused the dissonance can help you figure out the best way to address it.
In our example, you didn't appreciate your friend pointing out that you were drinking soda instead of water. You realize that you were making a decision that was out-of-step with what you said you wanted to do.
3. Determine what you want to change
Now you're at a crossroads. You said you were going to do one thing, and you did something else. To resolve it, you have a few options:
- You can call your friend and tell them to never speak to you again.
- You can rationalize that soda is made with water, so it's basically the same thing.
- You can keep Googling until you find a website that tells you no one needs to drink eight glasses of water, and water is actually unhealthy.
- You can forgive yourself and start drinking water.
Whatever you choose is not the important thing. At this point, you've already done the hard work. Developing the self-awareness to notice and question the dissonance often resolves it.
Dissonance doesn’t happen so you can beat yourself up. And it isn't telling you to do one thing or another. It's giving you the information you need to be at peace with your decisions and to understand why you made them.
4. Talk to a coach
In our example, the change is fairly straightforward. But sometimes, we have feelings of dissonance and we don't understand — or can't trace — where they came from. In cases like these or for more complex changes, you’ll benefit from additional accountability and support. Talking to a coach can help you develop self-awareness and understand the source of your cognitive dissonance. Coaches are skilled at helping people navigate the stages of behavior change and resolve internal discomfort.
It’s a rare human that doesn’t have a few contradictions. That’s part of what makes people who they are. We benefit, though, from approaching these inconsistencies with curiosity and grace, even when we want to change them.
Cognitive dissonance is an internal tool for building self-awareness. In order to live our lives with purpose, clarity, and passion, we need these tools to understand when we're losing sight of our internal compass. But we don’t have to do it alone. We can learn to notice these patterns — and even laugh at them — with the help of a coach.
BetterUp Staff Writer