How come so many people who smoke believe that life ends anyhow at some point, so why not enjoy it in the meantime?
How come so many entrepreneurs with failed ventures argue that it was worth all the effort for the learnings?
How come so many divorced couples can only see the bad attitudes and habits in each other?
Cognitive Dissonance can provide an answer to these questions. First described in 1957 by Leon Festinger1, Cognitive Dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling one experiences when two ideas one holds clash with each other — often a certain behaviour with a contrary attitude. This feeling can vary in intensity and can become as strong as being hungry2.
By nature, the human mind seeks a state of „internal psychological consistency“ where mental attitudes and actions match up. Festinger proposed that this is to be able to function mentally in the real world.
By now more than 2000 experiments have been conducted on the topic and the theory is widely accepted. It even made its way into the field of Artificial Intelligence, where research examines if Cognitive Dissonance might help create more human-like systems3.
So what can cause Cognitive Dissonance?
Cause #1: Forced Behaviour
We can experience Cognitive Dissonance when we are forced to do something that does not comply with our values or beliefs.
For example, an employee might be forced to work on a lot of form papers while he does not see value in bureaucracy. This creates a dissonance between his actions and internal values. Because the forced action already happened (be it for a short or long time) he cannot change or prevent it. He can only resolve the dissonance by adopting new values („Actually, working on the papers helps me to train patience.“) or changing his existing values („You know, I think a certain level of bureaucracy is the necessary base of every large company.“) so that they do not conflict with his actions anymore.
Cause #2: New Information
We can also be in a state of Cognitive Dissonance by learning new information that do not fit within our existing values and beliefs.
Carol Tavris describes one situation as especially uncomfortable4: Being exposed to a critique or fact that questions our self-concept.
For example: I don’t mind if someone criticizes my physical strength — it’s not something I put in extraordinary effort. If however, someone tells me I do not care about my environmental impact because I take a plane to go on vacation, I am going to experience high Cognitive Dissonance because I value little environmental impact as a strong part of my self.
To lower this uncomfortable Cognitive Dissonance, I can react in different ways:
- Deny the critique: By discrediting the source of the critique or questioning the factual correctness I can continue holding my value of little environmental impact („Where did you get the information that flying is bad for the environment?“ or „What qualifies you to say that?“).
- Adopt a new value: By introducing a new value I can continue holding my existing belief while acknowledging the critique („I agree, flying might be bad for the environment — but given its CO₂ Emissions per head and km it is much more environmentally friendly than driving the same distance.“).
- Change my value: By altering my existing belief I can define myself through striving for less environmental impact instead of a minimal one („You are right, flying is bad for the environment. I’m not perfect but I try to lower my impact where I deem it possible.“).
Especially the first option can lead to people that have intrinsically good intentions to exhibit bad behaviour. Because they hold the belief that they are kind and moral, they often choose the option of denying critique that is targetted at their bad behaviour — otherwise, they would experience Cognitive Dissonance caused by their belief and the incoming critique. By choosing to deny the critique, they will inevitably continue their bad behaviour.
Remember the smoker from the beginning? He is the prime example of Cognitive Dissonance. Most often because of addiction, he cannot stop his behaviour of smoking. He experiences dissonance between his actions and the information that smoking causes cancer. However, in this case, he cannot simply change his behaviour so he is only left with the option to deny the critique („Research has not proved definitely that smoking causes cancer.“) or to adopt a new belief („Life ends anyhow, so why not enjoy it in the meantime?“).
Cause #3: Own Decisions and Effort
Cognitive Dissonance can also be caused by our own decisions or the amount of effort we put into something. If we worked hard to achieve certain views or things and then evaluate the outcome as negative, our mind will experience discomfort that needs to be resolved. The same is true for decisions we take — we will seek psychological consistency by modifying our beliefs so that they match with our decisions.
For example: When two people fall in love, they can often only see the wonderful sides of each other. Everything is perfect. When they start noticing these little habits that are slightly annoying, a dissonance is created between the perfect image and these discoveries. The couple can decide to either accept the imperfections and focus on the wonderful parts of each other or they can decide that all of this is not bearable and they have to divorce. If they do, what usually occurs is a change of how they see each other: Many of the things they once valued in each other are forgotten and now the former partner is a horrible person with all these bad habits. By now, it should be no surprise that this change of perspective is (unconsciously) made to escape Cognitive Dissonance: The decision to divorce conflicts with the positive image of the other person, so the image needs to adapt. Otherwise, the belief that one acts rationally would need to be questioned. Elliot Aronson, a psychologist who has contributed a lot to the theory, writes5:
„Dissonance theory does not rest upon the assumption that man is a rational animal; rather, it suggests that man is a rationalizing animal — that he attempts to appear rational, both to others and to himself.“
The same goes for the entrepreneur who invested multiple years and lots of money into building a venture that ultimately „failed“. He is going to find himself in a state of Cognitive Dissonance because the effort he invested does not match his evaluation of the outcome. He has the same options as discussed before: deny the effort („Actually I didn’t put in that much time and money, it was just a side thing.“), add new values („Others might think it was a failure, but I value the experience and the learnings I drew from it.“) or change existing values („I came to believe that it was actually lost time and money. I won’t try that again.“).
A word of caution
Cognitive dissonance is a theory that aims to explain why we behave in a certain way — it tells us nothing about the „truth“ of a situation.
When I heard about the theory, my first intuition was „Oh, now that I know about Cognitive Dissonance, I can be more clear about what really happened, not what my mind tries to convince me of“.
However, this is not correct — although the knowledge of Cognitive Dissonance allows us to see why we change our behaviour or beliefs, it does not reveal the true nature of a situation (if there even is something like that). It gives no insight into whether smoking can be justified by living a shorter but more enjoyable life or if the failed venture of the entrepreneur was indeed immensely helpful for his later career.
The future is uncertain. Although we sometimes like to think, we cannot see all the implications a decision might have. Values are subjective and nothing is more adaptable than the human mind — that’s something the theory of Cognitive Dissonance reminds us of.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press.↩
Elliot, Andrew & Devine, Patricia. (1994). On the Motivational Nature of Cognitive Dissonance: Dissonance as Psychological Discomfort. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.↩
Jennings, K. E. (2010). Developing creativity: Artificial barriers in artificial intelligence. Minds and Machines.↩
Carroll, S. (2018). Mindscape: Carol Tavris on Mistakes, Justification, and Cognitive Dissonance [Audio podcast]↩
Abelson, R. P., Aronson, E., McGuire, W. J., Newcomb, T. M., Rosenberg, M. J., & Tannenbaum, P. H. (Eds.). (1968). Theories of cognitive consistency: a sourcebook. Rand-McNally: Chicago.↩
Axsom, D., & Cooper, J. (1985). Cognitive dissonance and psychotherapy: The role of effort justification in inducing weight loss. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.↩
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