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What is cognitive dissonance and how do you reduce it?

October 24, 2022 - 17 min read

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What is cognitive dissonance?

The theory behind cognitive dissonance

What causes cognitive dissonance?

The effects of cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance vs. cognitive bias

How to reduce cognitive dissonance

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 of ourselves.

This kind of incongruence — called cognitive dissonance — can cause some serious mental discomfort. That’s because if you’re not self-aware, cognitive dissonance can leave you acting and feeling pretty out of character

Learning what cognitive dissonance is, why it’s so powerful, and how to manage it can put you 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.

Unlike hypocrisy, cognitive dissonance threatens our identity and sense of self. That’s why it’s important to recognize what it is and what it feels like — if you don’t, then it will be that much harder to live an authentic life aligned with your personal values.

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 fields of social psychology and psychiatry.

Examples of cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance isn’t just a vague psychological theory — in fact, contradictory beliefs appear in our lives more often than we might want to admit. The world isn’t always black-and-white, after all. The important thing is to stay connected to yourself and make positive changes when needed. 

Here are a few examples of cognitive dissonance:  

  • Eating meat: Let’s say you love animals and think they should be treated well, but you eat meat daily (for convenience, health, or other reasons). The uncomfortable feeling you get when you think about where your food came from is a well-documented example of cognitive dissonance

  • Dieting (or cheating on that diet): You might truly want to improve your health or reduce calories. But you might also love ice cream. That means when you grab dessert, you’ll probably experience some dissonance.

  • Smoking: Most people know that smoking is, inarguably, a bad thing. The uncomfortable feeling a person gets when they choose to smoke a cigarette anyway is a form of cognitive dissonance.

What causes cognitive dissonance?

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.

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.

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2. Decision-making

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.” Your brain feels better when you can align your behavior with your values.

cognitive-dissonance-person-hanging-out-on-sofa

3. Effort

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 — 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. This process of effort justification validates the benefits of the choices we’ve made.

4. New information 

In today’s world, we’re inundated with information. One thirty-second social media video can totally shift our perspective. This is exciting, because it means we’re always learning, but it can lead to cognitive dissonance. 

For example, let’s say you watch a documentary that gives you some new beliefs about the ethics of fast fashion. You didn’t think about it much before, but if you continue to make the same clothing choices, you’ll feel some cognitive dissonance. 

5. Addiction 

As we mentioned earlier, many people know that smoking is harmful to their health — yet they continue to do it. Addiction is one of the most powerful causes of cognitive dissonance. 

Since addiction creates a chemical dependency on a substance — whether it's nicotine or sugar — this kind of dissonance can be hard to shake.

The effects of cognitive dissonance

Being in a state of cognitive dissonance is unpleasant. Over time, living out of integrity with our values begins to take its toll on our psychological well-being and mental health. 

However, the research shows that cognitive dissonance can have positive effects. When we process the dissonance and understand why it's happening, we can make changes that bring us into alignment. 

In one study, researchers asked participants to give speeches that would encourage the audience to take a certain positive action. 

Before they went on stage, they were told to think of a time when they didn’t exhibit that behavior. The result? The participants felt like hypocrites — but their intention to take the positive action increased.

This shows us that cognitive dissonance creates a motivational state, leading to cognitive changes. It helps people get started on the “psychological work” needed to reduce inconsistencies. 

For example, someone might get so tired of feeling cognitive dissonance every time they smoke that they seek help. They might join a support group, read books on addiction, and get rid of their cigarettes. 

Though beating the addiction will be hard, they will feel relief knowing that they are living in alignment with what they truly value: their health.

cognitive-dissonance-person-holding-their-head

What are the signs of cognitive dissonance?

The truth is, most of us have experienced dissonance at one time or another. Unfortunately, though, there’s no flashing red light that tells you when you’re not in alignment with your values — it’s all internal. 

To live an authentic life, you need to be able to recognize when you’re compensating for incongruence. From there, you can make positive changes that help you live according to your true values. 

To help with that process, here are some signs that you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance:

  1. You’re often defensive about your choices 

  2. There are conversations or topics that you’re avoiding 

  3. You’re angry, irritable, or frustrated

  4. You feel jealous or bitter about other people’s good news, or feel compelled to explain why it hasn’t happened for you

  5. You spend a lot of time or energy justifying your actions, even when no one’s questioning them

  6. People that know you well are surprised by your statements or behavior 

  7. You try to convince others that your way of thinking is the right one 

  8. You’re minimizing potentially dangerous or unhealthy consequences of your behavior 

  9. You experience feelings of discomfort when talking about yourself or with someone who disagrees with you

  10. You react to gentle, constructive, or perceived criticism with hostility

Cognitive dissonance vs. cognitive bias

Cognitive dissonance and cognitive bias are related, but distinct. Remember: cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort that you feel when your thoughts and actions are misaligned. 

What is cognitive bias?

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. 

Social psychologists have uncovered dozens of cognitive biases, such as self-serving bias, unconscious bias, confirmation bias, fundamental attribution error, and the sunk-cost fallacy. 

How is dissonance related to cognitive bias? 

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.

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. It can be tough to recognize and address dissonance, but it’s an important step to improving your overall wellness. 

Here are four tips for cognitive dissonance reduction.

1. Check in with your feelings

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.

cognitive-dissonance-friends-talking-in-cafe

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.

Moving past cognitive dissonance

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.

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Published October 24, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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