Ways to reduce cognitive dissonance

According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior.

Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief. There are three ways to eliminate dissonance: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent.

Dissonance occurs most often in situations where an individual must choose between two incompatible beliefs or actions. The greatest dissonance is created when the two alternatives are equally attractive. Furthermore, attitude change is more likely in the direction of less incentive since this results in lower dissonance. In this respect, dissonance theory is contradictory to most behavioral theories which would predict greater attitude change with increased incentive (i.e., reinforcement).

Application

Dissonance theory applies to all situations involving attitude formation and change. It is especially relevant to decision-making and problem-solving.

Example

Consider someone who buys an expensive car but discovers that it is not comfortable on long drives. Dissonance exists between their beliefs that they have bought a good car and that a good car should be comfortable. Dissonance could be eliminated by deciding that it does not matter since the car is mainly used for short trips (reducing the importance of the dissonant belief) or focusing on the cars strengths such as safety, appearance, handling (thereby adding more consonant beliefs). The dissonance could also be eliminated by getting rid of the car, but this behavior is a lot harder to achieve than changing beliefs.

Principles

  1. Dissonance results when an individual must choose between attitudes and behaviors that are contradictory.
  2. Dissonance can be eliminated by reducing the importance of the conflicting beliefs, acquiring new beliefs that change the balance, or removing the conflicting attitude or behavior.

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Fighting Cognitive Dissonance & The Lies We Tell Ourselves

If you’re interested in psychology and human behavior, you’ve probably heard the phrase cognitive dissonance. It’s the term coined by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954 to describe “the feeling of psychological discomfort produced by the combined presence of two thoughts that do not follow from one another. Festinger proposed that the greater the discomfort, the greater the desire to reduce the dissonance of the two cognitive elements” (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999). Dissonance theory suggests that if individuals act in ways that contradict their beliefs, then they typically will change their beliefs to align with their actions (or vice-a-versa).

The easiest way to describe the concept is by a quick example. Say you’re a student looking to choose between two different universities you’d like to attend. After being accepted to each, you’re asked to freely rate the universities after considering each college’s pros and cons. You make your decision and are asked to rate the two universities once again. People will usually rate the chosen university as better and the rejected option as worse after having made their decision.

So even if the university we didn’t choose was rated higher initially, our choice dictates that more often than not, we’ll rate it higher. Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense why we would choose the lower-rated school. This is cognitive dissonance at work.

Another example can be seen in many people’s continuing to smoke two or three packs of cigarettes a day, even though research shows they are shortening their own lives. They answer this cognitive dissonance with thoughts like, “Well, I’ve tried to quit and it’s just too hard,” or “It’s not as bad as they say and besides, I really enjoy smoking.” Daily smokers justify their behaviors through rationalizations or denial, just as most people do when faced with cognitive dissonance.

Not everyone feels cognitive dissonance to the same degree. People with a higher need for consistency and certainty in their lives usually feel the effects of cognitive dissonance more than those who have a lesser need for such consistency.

Cognitive-dissonance is just one of many biases that work in our everyday lives. We don’t like to believe that we may be wrong, so we may limit our intake of new information or thinking about things in ways that don’t fit within our pre-existing beliefs. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.”

We also don’t like to second-guess our choices, even if later they are proven wrong or unwise. By second-guessing ourselves, we suggest we may not be as wise or as right as we’ve led ourselves to believe. This may lead us to commit to a particular course of action and become insensitive to and reject alternative, perhaps better, courses that come to light. That’s why many people seek to avoid or minimize regret in their lives, and seek “closure” — imposing a definitive end to an event or relationship. It reduces the possibility of future cognitive dissonance.

So What Do I Do About Cognitive Dissonance?

But for all of the writing about cognitive dissonance, little has been written about what to do about it (or whether you should even care). If our brains were made to think this way to help protect our own view of the world or sense of self or follow through on a commitment, is this a bad thing that we should try and undo?

People may run into problems with cognitive dissonance because it can be, in its most basic form, a sort of lie to oneself. As with all lies, it depends on the size of the lie and whether it’s more likely to hurt you in some way in the long run. We tell “little white lies” everyday in our social lives (“Oh yes, that’s a great color on you!”) that bring little harm to either side and help smooth over otherwise awkward situations. So while cognitive dissonance resolves the internal anxiety we face over two opposing beliefs or behaviors, it may also inadvertently reinforce future bad decisions.

Matz and his colleagues (2008) showed that our personality can help mediate the effects of cognitive dissonance. They found that people who were extraverted were less likely to feel the negative impact of cognitive dissonance and were also less likely to change their mind. Introverts, on the other hand, experienced increased dissonance discomfort and were more likely to change their attitude to match the majority of others in the experiment.

What if you can’t change your personality?

Self-awareness seems to be a key to understanding how and when cognitive dissonance may play a role in your life. If you find yourself justifying or rationalizing decisions or behaviors that you’re not quite clear you firmly believe in, that might be a sign that cognitive dissonance is at work. If your explanation for something is, “Well, that’s the way I’ve always done it or thought about it,” that may also be a sign. Socrates extolled that “An unexamined life is not worth living.” In other words, challenge and be skeptical of such answers if you find yourself falling back on them.

A part of that self awareness that may help in dealing with cognitive dissonance is to examine the commitments and decisions we make in our lives. If the resolution of cognitive dissonance means that we move forward with a commitment and spring into action, making us feel better, maybe the dissonance was trying to tell us something. Maybe the decision or commitment wasn’t as right for us as we initially thought, even if it means overcoming our “no second-guessing” bias and making a different decision. Sometimes we’re just plain wrong. Admitting it, apologizing if need be, and moving forward can save us a lot of time, mental energy and hurt feelings.

Cognitive Dissonance as Therapy Technique

Cognitive dissonance isn’t always something bad — it has been successfully used to help people change their unhealthy attitudes and behaviors. For instance, if a woman holds the belief that women should be super-thin and not eat in a healthy manner, cognitive dissonance can be used to successfully change those kinds of beliefs and the resulting eating-disordered behavior (Becker et al., 2008). It’s also been successfully employed to change an over reliance on online gaming, road rage, and many other negative behaviors.

In these kinds of interventions, the model most often used is to try and get people to understand their current attitudes and behaviors, the costs involved in holding these particular attitudes or engaging in the negative behaviors, role playing, exercises and homework design to help a person to become more aware and constantly challenge the attitudes and behaviors, and self-affirmation exercises. Most of these techniques share a common grounding and background in traditional cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy techniques.

In better understanding cognitive dissonance and the role it plays in most of our lives, we can be on the lookout for it and its sometimes-negative effects.

Fighting Cognitive Dissonance & The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Cognitive Dissonance

By Saul McLeod, updated 2018

Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

For example, when people smoke (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition), they are in a state of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen.

While fringe members were more inclined to recognize that they had made fools of themselves and to “put it down to experience,” committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).

How Attitude Change Takes Place

Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and behavior in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance). This is known as the principle of cognitive consistency.

When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.

Dissonance can be reduced in one of three ways:

Change one or more of the attitudes, behavior, beliefs, etc., to make the relationship between the two elements a consonant one.

When one of the dissonant elements is a behavior, the individual can change or eliminate the behavior.

However, this mode of dissonance reduction frequently presents problems for people, as it is often difficult for people to change well-learned behavioral responses (e.g., giving up smoking).

Acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs.

For example, thinking smoking causes lung cancer will cause dissonance if a person smokes.

However, new information such as “research has not proved definitely that smoking causes lung cancer” may reduce the dissonance.

Reduce the importance of the cognitions (i.e., beliefs, attitudes).

A person could convince themself that it is better to “live for today” than to “save for tomorrow.”

In other words, he could tell himself that a short life filled with smoking and sensual pleasures is better than a long life devoid of such joys. In this way, he would be decreasing the importance of the dissonant cognition (smoking is bad for one’s health).

Notice that dissonance theory does not state that these modes of dissonance reduction will actually work, only that individuals who are in a state of cognitive dissonance will take steps to reduce the extent of their dissonance.

The theory of cognitive dissonance has been widely researched in a number of situations to develop the basic idea in more detail, and various factors that have been identified which may be important in attitude change.

This research can be divided into three main areas:

  1. forced compliance behavior,
  2. decision-making,
  3. and effort.

We will look at the main findings to have emerged from each area.

Forced Compliance Behavior

When someone is forced to do (publicly) something they (privately) really don’t want to do, dissonance is created between their cognition (I didn’t want to do this) and their behavior (I did it).

Forced compliance occurs when an individual performs an action that is inconsistent with his or her beliefs. The behavior can’t be changed, since it was already in the past, so dissonance will need to be reduced by re-evaluating their attitude to what they have done. This prediction has been tested experimentally:

In an intriguing experiment, Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) asked participants to perform a series of dull tasks (such as turning pegs in a peg board for an hour). As you can imagine, participant’s attitudes toward this task were highly negative.

Aim

Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) investigated if making people perform a dull task would create cognitive dissonance through forced compliance behavior.

Method

In their laboratory experiment, they used 71 male students as participants to perform a series of dull tasks (such as turning pegs in a peg board for an hour).

They were then paid either $1 or $20 to tell a waiting participant (a confederate) that the tasks were really interesting. Almost all of the participants agreed to walk into the waiting room and persuade the confederate that the boring experiment would be fun.

Results

When the participants were asked to evaluate the experiment, the participants who were paid only $1 rated the tedious task as more fun and enjoyable than the participants who were paid $20 to lie.

Conclusion

Being paid only $1 is not sufficient incentive for lying and so those who were paid $1 experienced dissonance. They could only overcome that dissonance by coming to believe that the tasks really were interesting and enjoyable. Being paid $20 provides a reason for turning pegs, and there is therefore no dissonance.

Decision Making

Life is filled with decisions, and decisions (as a general rule) arouse dissonance.

For example, suppose you had to decide whether to accept a job in an absolutely beautiful area of the country, or turn down the job so you could be near your friends and family. Either way, you would experience dissonance. If you took the job you would miss your loved ones; if you turned the job down, you would pine for the beautiful streams, mountains, and valleys.

Both alternatives have their good points and bad points. The rub is that making a decision cuts off the possibility that you can enjoy the advantages of the unchosen alternative, yet it assures you that you must accept the disadvantages of the chosen alternative.

People have several ways to reduce dissonance that is aroused by making a decision (Festinger, 1964). One thing they can do is to change the behavior. As noted earlier, this is often very difficult, so people frequently employ a variety of mental maneuvers. A common way to reduce dissonance is to increase the attractiveness of the chosen alternative and to decrease the attractiveness of the rejected alternative. This is referred to as “spreading apart the alternatives.”

Brehm (1956) was the first to investigate the relationship between dissonance and decision-making.

Female participants were informed they would be helping out in a study funded by several manufacturers. Participants were also told that they would receive one of the products at the end of the experiment to compensate for their time and effort.

The women then rated the desirability of eight household products that ranged in price from $15 to $30. The products included an automatic coffee maker, an electric sandwich grill, an automatic toaster, and a portable radio.

Participants in the control group were simply given one of the products. Because these participants did not make a decision, they did not have any dissonance to reduce. Individuals in the low-dissonance group chose between a desirable product and one rated 3 points lower on an 8-point scale.

Participants in the high-dissonance condition chose between a highly desirable product and one rated just 1 point lower on the 8-point scale. After reading the reports about the various products, individuals rated the products again.

Findings

Participants in the high-dissonance condition spread apart the alternatives significantly more than did the participants in the other two conditions.

In other words, they were more likely than participants in the other two conditions to increase the attractiveness of the chosen alternative and to decrease the attractiveness of the unchosen alternative.

Effort

It also seems to be the case that we value most highly those goals or items which have required considerable effort to achieve.

This is probably because dissonance would be caused if we spent a great effort to achieve something and then evaluated it negatively. We could, of course, spend years of effort into achieving something which turns out to be a load of rubbish and then, in order to avoid the dissonance that produces, try to convince ourselves that we didn’t really spend years of effort, or that the effort was really quite enjoyable, or that it wasn’t really a lot of effort.

In fact, though, it seems we find it easier to persuade ourselves that what we have achieved is worthwhile and that’s what most of us do, evaluating highly something whose achievement has cost us dear – whether other people think it’s much cop or not! This method of reducing dissonance is known as ‘effort justification.’

If we put effort into a task which we have chosen to carry out, and the task turns out badly, we experience dissonance. To reduce this dissonance, we are motivated to try to think that the task turned out well.

A classic dissonance experiment by Aronson and Mills (1959) demonstrates the basic idea. To investigate the relationship between dissonance and effort.

Female students volunteered to take part in a discussion on the psychology of sex. In the ‘mild embarrassment’ condition, participants read aloud to a male experimenter a list of sex-related words like ‘virgin’ and ‘prostitute.’

In the ‘severe embarrassment’ condition, they had to read aloud obscene words and a very explicit sexual passage. In the control condition, they went straight into the main study. In all conditions, they then heard a very boring discussion about sex in lower animals. They were asked to rate how interesting they had found the discussion, and how interesting they had found the people involved in it.

Participants in the ‘severe embarrassment’ condition gave the most positive rating.

If a voluntary experience which has cost a lot of effort turns out badly, dissonance is reduced by redefining the experience as interesting. This justifies the effort made.

Critical Evaluation

There has been a great deal of research into cognitive dissonance, providing some interesting and sometimes unexpected findings. It is a theory with very broad applications, showing that we aim for consistency between attitudes and behaviors, and may not use very rational methods to achieve it. It has the advantage of being testable by scientific means (i.e., experiments).

However, there is a problem from a scientific point of view, because we cannot physically observe cognitive dissonance, and therefore we cannot objectively measure it (re: behaviorism). Consequently, the term cognitive dissonance is somewhat subjective.

There is also some ambiguity (i.e., vagueness) about the term ‘dissonance’ itself. Is it a perception (as ‘cognitive’ suggests), or a feeling, or a feeling about a perception? Aronson’s Revision of the idea of dissonance as an inconsistency between a person’s self-concept and a cognition about their behavior makes it seem likely that dissonance is really nothing more than guilt.

There are also individual differences in whether or not people act as this theory predicts. Highly anxious people are more likely to do so. Many people seem able to cope with considerable dissonance and not experience the tensions the theory predicts.

Finally, many of the studies supporting the theory of cognitive dissonance have low ecological validity. For example, turning pegs (as in Festinger’s experiment) is an artificial task that doesn’t happen in everyday life.

Also, the majority of experiments used students as participants, which raise issues of a biased sample. Could we generalize the results from such experiments?

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APA Style References

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Festinger, L. (1959). Some attitudinal consequences of forced decisions. Acta Psychologica, 15, 389-390.

Festinger, L. (Ed.). (1964). Conflict, decision, and dissonance (Vol. 3). Stanford University Press.

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Selective Exposure. As a Way to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance

This course is about communication on various levels. Over these 9 weeks we will cover a number of theories, cases and applications in the field of communication science. We will start with the foundational concepts of communication theory, defining what the theory is and going through a number of approaches to communication itself. Each week you will have a test to check on your progress and understanding. We also have a final text in the end of the course and a little bit of writing. As Oscar Wilde said, if you cannot write, you cannot think. If you cannot think, others will do thinking for you. So we find writing and reflecting pretty important for our classes. Along the course we provide you with in-class materials: lecture presentations, articles and additional readings. If you really want to get into the topic, don’t avoid this extra work. Although a substantial part of this course is theory-based, communication theory has a very practical application. Communication is an underlying process which creates and develops relationships, communities, societies. We communicative on a daily basis via a variety of means and channels. In our globalised and increasingly interconnected world, communication skills are essential in both the personal and professional spheres. It is our goal to leave you with a contextualisation and conceptualisation of communicative processes that will poise you to hone your own communicative skills — in other words, to put theory into practice. Do you have technical problems? Write to us: [email protected]

How Cognitive Dissonance Relates to Relationships

A man once asked for some of my chewing gum. When I refused him, he explained that he didn’t want it anyway …

Source: Geralt/

I’ll be the first to admit that the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ sounds complicated. This was certainly my impression when I first came across it. Although most people are probably fairly comfortable with the word ‘cognitive’ (or derivatives of ‘cognition’) by itself, the word ‘dissonance’ is not one that gets used a lot in everyday conversation. In fact, I could probably count on one hand the number of times that I’ve heard the word ‘dissonance’ mentioned by itself without any reference to cognition.

In a basic sense, cognitive dissonance just refers to a situation where someone’s behavior conflicts with their beliefs or attitudes. For example, when people smoke even though they know it’s pretty bad for them, they experience cognitive dissonance. Their behavior (smoking) is inconsistent with their beliefs (smoking is bad). The net effect is that they experience feelings of discomfort, and this generally results in the modification of either their attitude/belief or behavior so that they feel less discomfort.

A psychologist by the name of Leon Festinger came up with the idea of cognitive dissonance way back in the late 1950s, and did a heap of pioneering work in the field. Festinger suggested that we each have many different attitudes and beliefs about the world, and that we each behave in a number of different ways. We are all powerfully motivated to maintain cognitive consistency, and it is this force that can sometimes result in us behaving irrationally, and sometimes even maladaptively.

Because the feeling of dissonance is unpleasant and uncomfortable, we strive to reduce it. The reduction of dissonance can essentially be achieved in one of three ways: either we change our attitude(s)/belief(s)/behavior(s) (e.g. give up smoking), acquire new information (“research is yet to definitively prove that smoking causes lung cancer”), or reduce the importance of cognitions (beliefs/attitudes) (“it’s better to live a short life filled with pleasures like smoking than to live a long one devoid of any such joys”).

The formulation of the idea of cognitive dissonance arose from Festinger’s observation of a cult/UFO religion (‘The Seekers’) active in the early to mid 1950s. When their prophesied apocalypse failed to be realized, committed followers adopted an array of bizarre coping mechanisms. To deal with their disconfirmed expectancy, most of the ‘heavily invested members’ (many had left jobs/spouses and/or given away money and possessions) re-interpreted the evidence (that the world didn’t end) as proof that they were right all along (“the world was going to be destroyed, but was spared because of our faith”). In other words, rather than dealing with the dissonance and discomfort arising from being really committed to something and seeing clear evidence opposing it, devout members adjusted their beliefs so that they were more consistent with the evidence.

Members who weren’t so committed simply felt a bit foolish and chalked the whole thing up to experience. Festinger suggested that for someone to maintain or become more fervent about a belief after a disconfirmation, certain conditions must be met:

  • The belief must be held with deep conviction
  • The believer must have committed themselves to the belief (they must have taken some important action that is hard to undo)
  • The belief has to be specific and concerned with the real world
  • The believer must have social support (e.g. group membership)
  • And the disconfirming evidence has to be obvious, undeniable, and acknowledged by the believer

Relationships

The thing is, cognitive dissonance can occur in pretty much any area of life, and can be used to explain a lot of behavior, but is very common where someone’s beliefs (that are important to how they define themselves) conflict with how they behave.

Let’s consider a relationship.

Mary meets Jack (let’s say on a Tinder date or something) and they hit it off pretty much straight away. After dating for only a short time they move in together. Both are totally smitten with the other. Mary starts thinking to herself that Jack is ‘the one’. Everything in their relationship is going really well, and they’re both very happy.

At this point, they have been together six months, and lived together for most of that. Mary feels as though she knows Jack reasonably well. She feels as though she can kind of predict what Jack will and won’t do in some situations. Mary loves Jack and Jack loves Mary.

Then it happens.

One night Jack lashes out. He hits Mary on the cheek. It isn’t hard enough to bruise her, but it’s still very painful and distressing. Mary is hurt—physically, and emotionally. More than that, she’s confused: “Why did Jack do this?” She really thought, and still thinks, she knew him well.

Now Mary has a cognitive dilemma: on the one hand she really loves Jack and believes that he really loves her, but on the other hand, his behavior was horrible, and not what you would expect from someone who loves you. Mary experiences cognitive dissonance:

  • She loves Jack (attitude A)
  • She doesn’t love his behavior (attitude B)

Because the cognitive dissonance she experiences makes her feel uncomfortable, one of these attitudes has to change. To ‘solve’ the dissonance, the mind needs to make it so that the attitudes are consistent.

Essentially, Mary has a tough choice to make in order to rid herself of the uncomfortable dissonance. She can:

  • Accept the behavior and rationalize staying in the relationship by convincing herself that there is some other reason for her staying (“my parents will be upset,” “Jack has plenty of money,” etc.).
  • Accept the behavior, possibly rationalizing it somehow (“he was drunk/stressed”, he got carried away,” “he has redeeming qualities,” etc.). This can result in the modification of attitude B.
  • End the relationship. She doesn’t love Jack’s behavior OR Jack.

Obviously people don’t always select one of the first two options, but it happens far too often.

Those who like you help you, and those who help you like you.

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin describes a technique that he used to deal with the animosity of a rival legislator back in the 18th century. Upon hearing that his rival had a rare and valuable book in his personal library, Franklin asked to borrow it for a short time. His rival agreed, and Franklin returned the book a week or so later. Franklin says that when next they met, “he spoke to me with great civility, and ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends.”

Benjamin Franklin essentially turned a foe into a friend and got an enemy to like him by having his enemy do him a favor.

The Ben Franklin effect relates closely to cognitive dissonance theory, and generally suggests that someone who does a favor for someone else is more likely to like them or do another favor, than if they had received a favour from them. So based on this story, if you want someone to like you it might be worth getting them to do you a favor (and not the other way round).

But beware here, the favor must be personal. Jecker and Landy (1969) had students participate in an intellectual contest where they were able to win money. Afterward, students were either:

  • Approached by the researcher and asked to give the money back as his own funds (which he had been using for the experiment) were running low
  • Approached by a secretary and asked to give the money back to the psychology department
  • Not approached at all

Group 1 said they liked the researcher more than either groups 2 or 3. While an impersonal request decreases liking (group 2), a personal request increases it.

In a similar way, people tend to dislike their victims more after they have victimized them. It’s even easier to hate our victims if we de-humanize them. Committing wartime atrocities when you like and value your victims causes immense dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance can account for behavioral and attitudinal shifts in many different domains. Consider a man who regards himself as being environmentally responsible. Now imagine that he has just bought a new car which he later finds out has poor mileage. The inconsistency here is that: A) It’s important to the man to be environmentally conscious (attitude); and B) He is driving a car that isn’t environmentally friendly (behavior). In order to reduce the dissonance he can do a few things:

  • He can sell the car (or perhaps upgrade to a more environmentally friendly model)
  • He can reduce his emphasis on environmental responsibility (perhaps by reducing the impact of and his reliance on the car by using public transport/carpooling/walking/riding more)

Resolving cognitive dissonance typically involves justifying some behavior to yourself. For example:

  • You put in a huge effort so that you can do something (e.g., go to college) and then find out that it’s pretty average when you get there. You reason that you actually love it, so all your effort was entirely justified.
  • You don’t want to do the work/study that you should be doing so you procrastinate by watching TV. You convince yourself that this one more episode will refresh your mind and allow you to study and maintain focus for hours.
  • You cheat on an exam even though you know cheating is wrong. You convince yourself that you only did it because the exam was really tough, and you’ll never do it again.

I could go on ad nauseam, but I won’t. The bottom line is that cognitive dissonance is everywhere, and can be used to explain a lot of different behaviors and attitudes.

How and Why to Reduce the Cognitive Dissonance You Feel

By definition, dissonance means tension. You’ll want to minimize it ASAP and return to a state of harmony. Here’s how to do it.

What are some of the steps you can take to minimize the cognitive dissonance you feel so that you can feel more consistent in your thoughts? Paul Klee/ Athenaeum

All of us experience cognitive dissonance. It’s the tension that arises when we think one way but act another way, or when we hold two opposing views at the same time. You want to lose weight, but you “cheat” and eat a chocolate doughnut. You support a right to bear arms, but you also want to see stricter gun laws because you believe they’ll lead to fewer mass shootings.

“All of us, and I mean all of us, have something we have dissonant beliefs and behaviors about,” says Alauna Curry, MD, a psychiatrist with the Rowe Network in Houston.

Some of that dissonance can be a good thing, but too much (or too much unresolved tension) means we’re constantly at conflict with ourselves. And that tension and conflict can make us feel stressed, irritated, and unhappy if we let them fester for too long. Here’s what you need to do to go about reducing and reconciling the cognitive dissonance in your life.

Some Cognitive Dissonance Can Help Us Grow

Dissonance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Recognizing when your beliefs and behaviors are in conflict — or recognizing when two beliefs seem to oppose one another — can help you parse out and better understand your values and what you stand for. And ultimately, recognizing that inner conflict can help you understand yourself better and the values and beliefs that really matter to you, says Paraskevi Noulas, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health in New York City.

“Working to find the cognitive dissonance in your life can be a positive and amazing life-altering experience,” Dr. Curry says. “It can allow you to grow in control of yourself and help you build trust in yourself and your decision-making.”

RELATED: Cognitive Dissonance Plays a Big Role in Decision-Making

Doing some soul searching to determine the areas of your life where contradiction exists can shed light on areas you may need to work on. Maybe you always expect your friends to be prompt when you have dinner plans, but you’re usually 10 minutes late yourself. Adjusting your behavior or your expectations of your friends might help lessen conflict down the line. You can use that self-awareness to guide your future actions and decisions.

On a big-picture level, we have cognitive dissonance to thank for huge advancements within society. Noulas says that successes in women’s rights, environmental rights, and reducing child marriages are examples of positive change that have resulted from cognitive dissonance. Those changes were due to individuals recognizing contradictions between how people viewed women, the environment, and whether or not child marriage was right and how we acted as a society (or allowed others to act). People recognized the cognitive dissonance and made necessary changes to better align society’s values with our actions.

Cognitive Dissonance Can Be Harmful, Too

Recognizing and reconciling cognitive dissonance is not always a feel-good experience. Spotting dissonance in our own lives can be painful, embarrassing, and anxiety-inducing, too. And it can be troubling and mentally exhausting to deal with, Curry says.

“The tension that gets created when you hold certain beliefs or values but act in a way that conflicts with your belief systems generates an internal discomfort that most people have to subconsciously work very hard to ignore,” Curry says.

Consider if you’re working in a job you hate, suggests Michele Leno, PhD, a Michigan-based licensed psychologist and founder of DML Psychological Services. You have a pit in your stomach every morning, and you’re counting down the hours until it’s time to leave. And yet, you go every day. Living with that dissonance probably means you’re fairly stressed out and angry every day.

And sometimes reducing the dissonance can be as easy as reframing your thinking.

Maybe not feeling so negative about that job is a matter of recognizing its benefits, Leno says. Such as, “earning a salary and a pension is the responsible thing to do” or “I don’t respect my boss, but I’m learning a lot.”

How to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance

Since it’s unlikely that any of us can avoid cognitive dissonance completely, it’s important to spot it and resolve or reduce it. Remember: It’s the resolution of dissonance in our own lives (not the letting that tension fester part) that allows us to grow, Noulas says.

That said, there are some ways to resolve or at least minimize dissonance, starting with these three basic routes, according to Richard Hall, PhD, a professor of business and information technology at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rollo and the creator of the website Psychology World: (1)

  1. Change your belief. This is the simplest option, but it also is more difficult to pull off when the belief is more important to you.
  2. Change your actions. Whatever you did might have caused so much guilt and shame that you swear you’ll never do it again. That could resolve the dissonance and make you feel better about the situation.
  3. Change how you perceive your actions. By altering the way you remember what happened, you can talk yourself into believing that your actions weren’t in so much opposition to your beliefs. Let’s say you’re a fervent environmentalist, but you buy disposable water bottles when you travel. You might rationalize a behavior you know is not helping the environment by telling yourself it’s okay if you do it only occasionally or by considering the other actions you take as more important (such as volunteering to plant trees or using solar power for electricity in your home). Buying those water bottles and your beliefs still may contradict one another, but you no longer struggle with that opposition, so you protect yourself from the stress that conflict would otherwise cause you.

All of those routes help you get back to a mental state without conflict, where you feel like your beliefs, values, and actions are all in harmony. But each way of reducing dissonance requires that you recognize what feelings you have and doing something about it, Curry adds.

It can help to view the situation you’re in from the outside, stepping back so you can see the big picture. “Give equal weight to how others experience you, and using others as a mirror, begin to identify places where your belief systems and behavior do not align,” Curry says. “Then ask yourself why you behaved as you behaved.” This can help you see how you got into the situation and hopefully you can see a way to resolve it.

Preventing Cognitive Dissonance in the First Place

You can also lessen the chances of dissonance beginning in the first place if you practice being mindful, Noulas says. So, for instance, when conflict or tension arises, try not to act impulsively. Take the time to pause and think through your situation and your feelings. “It’s important to be in touch with your own value system and know when your thinking is being driven by emotions,” says Corrine Leikam, PsyD, an associate director at Sober College in Los Angeles.

Not sure how to become more mindful? Noulas suggests these actions:

  • Journaling
  • Talking to a friend
  • Exercising, which sometimes gives us the opportunity to be alone with our thoughts, rather than distracted by emails, text messages, TV, or chatty coworkers
  • Attending a meditation or yoga class
  • Engaging in therapy
  • Consulting with a spiritual adviser

Resolving or reducing cognitive dissonance is not always an easy task — but it’s worth it. “It takes constant attention to work on ourselves, to continue to push to create better interactions with each other and more self-awareness,” Curry says.

She says that reaching more consistency in your thoughts and behaviors will create a world that’s less harmful, less likely to trigger negative emotions, and therefore, less problematic.

What Is Cognitive Dissonance? Psychology Treatments That Help

By Michael Puskar

Updated December 04, 2019

Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Have you ever felt a sense of mental tension, but you weren’t sure where it was coming from? This could be cognitive dissonance, a psychological phenomenon that may be hard to recognize when you experience it. Fortunately, the field of psychology can shed some light on this uncomfortable mental state. This article will present an overview of cognitive dissonance and some treatments that help relieve its psychological stress.

Confused About What It Means To Have Cognitive Dissonance? Ask An Expert. Speak With A Licensed Professional Counselor Online Today!

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What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

So how does psychology define cognitive dissonance? It helps to look at the meanings of each word in the term. “Cognitive” refers to mental activity. It can mean thinking, learning, perceiving, believing, or intuiting. You may recognize “dissonance” as a word that is sometimes used in music to mean two or more musical notes that lack harmony and create a sense of tension when they are played together.

Therefore, cognitive dissonance is when two thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors are so out of harmony that they make you feel psychologically uncomfortable.

Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Let’s take a look at the original theory of cognitive dissonance, created in 1957 by social psychologist Leon Festinger. Festinger read about a cult that believed the world would soon end in a cataclysmic flood. He wondered: what would the cult members think when the world didn’t end? So he and some colleagues went undercover and managed to be accepted into the group. Their goal was to observe what would happen next.

What Festinger and his colleagues discovered was psychologically groundbreaking. The people who were less committed to the beliefs of the group simply accepted that they’d made a mistake and learned a lesson. However, the staunchest believers had a different response. They didn’t accept that their beliefs had been proven false. In fact, they began to work harder to gain new members for their cult.

Later, Festinger conducted experiments to find out more about this type of phenomenon. In one scenario, people were asked to lie and tell others that a boring job was interesting. Those who were paid $20 for this lie still believed that the task was boring after they lied about it. But the people who only received $1 for the lie changed their thoughts and became convinced the task was actually interesting. Not only did they lie about it, but they began to believe the lie.

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This result clearly illustrates what came to be known as Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. The $20 liars had no reason to change their thinking, as the amount they were paid rewarded them amply enough for acting in a way that contradicted their beliefs, resolving any mental tension. However, the $1 liars had to change their thinking to relieve the mental tension created when their actions didn’t sync with their thoughts, because there was no real reward for doing so. Festinger proposed that people have a drive for their attitudes and behaviors to be consistent. When their thoughts and behaviors are inconsistent, they change something so they can get back into mental harmony.

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance

Once you understand what cognitive dissonance is, you will be able to find examples all around you, including things you may have thought and done. Here are two common examples of this phenomenon.

Smoking

Engaging in unhealthy habits generally causes cognitive dissonance. Smoking is a prime example. If you know smoking causes cancer but you choose to smoke, your behavior is inconsistent with your knowledge. To resolve this mental conflict, you will likely tell yourself a story. You might focus, for example, on someone you know who smoked for decades and never got sick, rather than let yourself think about how many people have died from lung cancer.

Or you might say to yourself that everyone dies eventually, even if they only do things that are healthy. That sounds reasonable enough that you accept it and keep smoking. Yet you don’t go around tempting fate in other ways. So the dissonance is still there, even if you don’t recognize it.

Exercise

Cognitive dissonance isn’t always harmful. It can also occur when you’re making positive changes. Consider what happens when you decide to start exercising. Beginning a fitness routine can be grueling, especially if you’ve been sedentary for years. It’s unfamiliar, uncomfortable, tiring, time consuming, and maybe even painful.

Confused About What It Means To Have Cognitive Dissonance? Ask An Expert. Speak With A Licensed Professional Counselor Online Today!

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You have one voice in your head that says you don’t want to experience that discomfort, and another one that insists it’s good for you. To reduce your mental conflict, you may convince yourself that you like exercising even though it’s physically uncomfortable. If you’re successful in changing your fitness habits, this inner conflict is only temporary. The more you stick with the plan, the fitter you become. The exercise becomes more familiar and less physically uncomfortable. You experience the rewards of good health. These new thoughts align well with the fitness behaviors you’ve adopted.

Treatments for Cognitive Dissonance

When your thoughts and behaviors don’t align, you can take one of two approaches to reduce or eliminate the cognitive dissonance. You can change either your beliefs or your behavior. To alter either, you need to choose different thoughts. Thus, cognitive-behavioral therapy is especially useful for resolving cognitive dissonance.

Standard Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy relies on the assumption that thoughts create feelings, and feelings influence behavior. So during CBT, your therapist helps you examine your thoughts in the interest of making healthy behavioral changes. You talk about what is distressing to you. Then, with the help of your counselor, you examine the thoughts about the situation in question. Finally, you take a closer look at those thoughts and determine whether they’re accurate and rational. If not, you decide to change them.

When your thoughts and behaviors conflict, you can examine that disparity and decide what to do about it. You might not have to do anything except recognize it. Just understanding what’s happening may make you feel better. So in the exercise example above, you might decide that “Yes, I’m feeling cognitive dissonance, but I still want to stay on my fitness plan. These feelings are temporary anyway, and the benefits far outweigh the psychological discomfort.” That recognition is important. Without it, you might try to resolve the disharmony by quitting your program or self-sabotaging in some other way.

Standard cognitive-behavioral therapy can also encourage you to find new information that bridges the two incompatible elements. Your therapist can help you examine which of the behaviors and thoughts is most important to you. When you focus on what’s important, the dissonance diminishes.

Rational Living Therapy

Rational Living Therapy (RLT) is a specific type of cognitive-behavioral therapy. It’s based on the idea that it’s your thoughts about people and things that influence your feelings, not the people and things themselves. Like standard cognitive-behavioral therapy, RLT focuses on changing unhelpful thoughts.

Source: freepik.com

An RLT counselor can help you understand that feelings don’t always reflect the truth. They use the Socratic method and may even speed up the process through hypnotherapy. The therapist asks you questions designed to help you understand important aspects of situations, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Ultimately, they guide you to discover for yourself that you can control your feelings by changing your thoughts. With this newfound knowledge, you’re ready to start making the necessary changes to improve your mental harmony.

Seeking Help with BetterHelp

A defining characteristic of cognitive dissonance is that it’s psychologically distressing-it feels uncomfortable. Yet its damage can go beyond feelings. When cognitive dissonance drives your behavior, it can alter the course of your life. If you notice that you’re feeling mental tension or doing things you don’t understand, you may find help by talking to a therapist. Or you may already know where the dissonance lies but not how to resolve it. In that case, a counselor can help you resolve the tension and teach you how to do it better on your own in the future.

You can talk to a counselor in your local area or find a therapist online through BetterHelp. Online therapy is a convenient and affordable way to get help, and it’s just as effective as in-person sessions. Read the reviews in the next section to see how BetterHelp has helped others work with their thoughts and feel better.

Counselor Reviews

“I enjoy the email exchange I have with Dr. Mayfield. Her questions are helping me learn to understand why I do what I do. Now we are working on ways to change behaviors, by changing my thoughts. This is meaningful work.”

“Kimberly is an excellent counselor. She is smart, empathetic, and gets right into solutions and positive processes that enable growth necessary for self-empowerment. Her support and partnership in helping me identify approaches that will benefit my long-term success are invaluable. Her communication style is excellent-the methodology she uses to present scenarios helps to shift perspective-thus increasing my ability to be proactive instead of overwhelmed by issues. I highly recommend Kimberly.”

Conclusion

Cognitive dissonance can be burdensome, but therapy can help. Through the therapeutic process, you can take control of your thoughts and change behaviors that are causing mental discomfort. Then you can live a life that is not only aligned with your values, but also increases your psychological and physical health. Take the first step today.

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