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Understanding Cognitive Dissonance: The Battle of Beliefs

Have you ever encountered situations where you had to go against your beliefs? Or you may have heard of someone who holds a certain belief but acts in a way that contradicts it. For example, a person may strongly believe in protecting the environment and reducing global warming but may drive a gas-guzzling car, use single-use plastics, or fail to recycle properly. This inconsistency between their beliefs and actions can cause discomfort and lead to a change in either their beliefs or their behaviour. This phenomenon is known as cognitive dissonance. Experiencing cognitive dissonance can make us behave and feel inconsistent with our usual behaviour. So, knowing about cognitive dissonance, why it is so powerful, and how to manage it can empower us to take control of our beliefs and actions. The current blog tries to cover all of these.





What is cognitive dissonance?


Social psychologist Leon Festinger first coined cognitive dissonance in the 1950s. Festinger and James Carlsmith conducted a now-famous "$1/$20” experiment to study cognitive dissonance.


The study asked participants to perform a boring and repetitive task. They were then paid $1 or $20 to tell the next participant that the task was interesting and enjoyable. The participants who were paid $1 experienced more cognitive dissonance because their behaviour (lying about the task) did not match their internal attitude (the task was boring), leading them to change their attitude to be more positive to reduce the dissonance. The participants who were paid $20 did not experience as much dissonance because the high payment provided sufficient external justification for their behaviour. This study demonstrated that people experience cognitive dissonance when their actions conflict with their internal attitudes and beliefs, and they may change their attitudes to reduce the dissonance.


Cognitive dissonance is a psychological concept that describes the discomfort we feel when we hold two or more conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. The mental stress or tension arising from having contradictory ideas or engaging in behaviour that conflicts with our beliefs defines cognitive dissonance. For example, you value healthy living and exercise but enjoy eating junk food and sitting on the couch all day. This conflicting behaviour can cause cognitive dissonance, making you feel guilty or anxious about not living up to your beliefs. Another example could be a person who believes in the importance of environmental conservation but still drives a gas-guzzling car. This person may experience cognitive dissonance due to the conflict between their beliefs and behaviour.


Cognitive dissonance can also occur when new information challenges our existing beliefs. For instance, someone who has always believed that vaccines are harmful may experience cognitive dissonance when presented with scientific evidence that proves otherwise.


In each of these cases, cognitive dissonance creates mental discomfort that can be challenging to manage. However, by recognising the source of the dissonance and taking action to address it, we can reduce the tension and feel more aligned with our beliefs and values. Some studies have shown that people who wrote about their conflicting beliefs and values experienced reduced cognitive dissonance and greater alignment between their beliefs and actions compared to others. Another study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that when people were reminded of their values before engaging in a behaviour that conflicted with those values, they experienced less cognitive dissonance and were more likely to change their behaviour to align with their values. This suggests that being mindful of our values can help us make decisions more consistent with our beliefs and reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.


Several research studies on cognitive dissonance have shown that the experience of cognitive dissonance can be uncomfortable and can lead to attempts to resolve the inconsistency. When people are confronted with information that conflicts with their beliefs or values, they may experience psychological discomfort called cognitive dissonance. This discomfort can lead people to modify their beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours in order to reduce inconsistency and restore consistency.


What causes cognitive dissonance?


Several factors can lead to cognitive dissonance, including:

  • Inconsistency between attitudes and behaviour: When a person's actions don't align with their beliefs or values, it can create a sense of dissonance. For example, if someone believes that smoking harms their health but continues to smoke, this creates a conflict between their attitude and behaviour.

  • Exposure to new information: When a person is exposed to new information that conflicts with their beliefs, it can create cognitive dissonance. For example, a person who always believed that eating a certain type of food is healthy may experience cognitive dissonance when they learn about new research suggesting that this food may be harmful.

  • Forced compliance: When a person is forced to do something against their beliefs, it can create cognitive dissonance. For example, if someone is required to give a speech supporting a cause they don't believe in, it can create a sense of dissonance.

  • Insufficient justification: When a person engages in behaviour that goes against their beliefs or values but lacks sufficient justification, it can create cognitive dissonance. For example, if someone steals from their work even though they believe stealing is wrong, they may feel a sense of dissonance because their justification for stealing is not strong enough to override their belief that stealing is wrong.


What are the signs of cognitive dissonance?


Here are some signs that may indicate that someone is experiencing cognitive dissonance:

  • Being defensive about one's choices frequently.

  • Avoiding certain conversations or topics.

  • Experiencing feelings of anger, frustration or irritability.

  • Feeling jealous or resentful of other people's success and explaining why it hasn't occurred for oneself.

  • Justifying actions repeatedly, even when it's unnecessary.

  • Trying to convince others that one's thinking is the only correct way.

  • Feeling discomfort when discussing oneself or speaking to someone who disagrees.

  • Reacting with hostility to constructive, gentle or perceived criticism.


If one is facing cognitive dissonance, how to manage it?


Cognitive dissonance can be a challenging experience, but it also presents an opportunity for personal growth and development. Here are some strategies to help manage cognitive dissonance:

  • Identify the Source of the Dissonance - The first step in managing cognitive dissonance is to identify the source of the conflict. This can involve reflecting on your beliefs and values and the actions or behaviours that are inconsistent with them.

  • Challenge Your Beliefs - Challenging your beliefs to determine whether they are still valid is essential. This may involve considering alternative perspectives or seeking out new information. Doing this lets you better understand your beliefs and whether they align with your values and actions.

  • Take Action - To resolve cognitive dissonance, it is necessary to take action that aligns with your beliefs and values. This may involve changing your behaviour, modifying your beliefs, or finding a way to reconcile the conflicting beliefs.

  • Seek Support - Navigating the experience of cognitive dissonance can be challenging, and seeking support from others can be helpful. This may involve talking to a friend or family member, seeking advice from a mental health professional, or joining a support group. By sharing your experiences with others, you can gain new insights and perspectives to help you manage cognitive dissonance.

In conclusion, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort or mental stress that arises when an individual holds two or more conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. It can lead to discomfort, anxiety, guilt, and frustration and lead individuals to modify their beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours. By identifying the source of the dissonance, challenging beliefs, taking action, and seeking support, we can reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance and feel more aligned with our beliefs and values. Managing cognitive dissonance can lead to more positive outcomes, including greater consistency between our beliefs and actions, improved decision-making, and a greater sense of personal integrity.


References

  1. Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press.

  2. Harmon-Jones, E., & Harmon-Jones, C. (2007). Cognitive dissonance theory after 50 years of development. Zeitschrift für Sozialpsychologie, 38(1), 7-16.

  3. Aronson, E. (1992). The theory of cognitive dissonance: A current perspective. Advances in experimental social psychology, 25, 1-41.

  4. Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive dissonance: Fifty years of a classic theory. Sage.

  5. Cooper, J., & Fazio, R. H. (1984). A new look at dissonance theory. Advances in experimental social psychology, 17, 229-266.

  6. Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203-210.

  7. Gawronski, B., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (Eds.). (2006). Theory and explanation in social psychology. Guilford Press.

  8. Harmon-Jones, E., & Mills, J. (1999). Cognitive dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in social psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  9. Harmon-Jones, E., & Harmon-Jones, C. (2017). Cognitive dissonance theory. The Wiley Blackwell encyclopedia of social theory, 1-5.

  10. Stone, J., Aronson, E., Crain, A. L., Winslow, M. P., & Fried, C. B. (1994). Inducing hypocrisy as a means of encouraging young adults to use condoms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(1), 116-128.

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