All About Cognitive Dissonance

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LaylaBird / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Michael MacIntyre, MD

Cognitive dissonance is a mental conflict or discomfort that occurs when your behaviors and your beliefs do not align. You can experience cognitive dissonance when what you decide to do contradicts your values, morals, or belief system.

The discomfort you experience with the conflicting cognitions creates a motivational drive to somehow reduce the dissonance.

Psychologist Leon Festinger introduced the concept of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s. One way he developed the term was by entering and studying a group of people who believed a flood would destroy a part of the earth—and the dissonance they experienced when that belief did not come true.

To reduce their dissonance, the group members either dropped their original belief or adopted a new belief that their faith saved the earth.

Over the past 70 years, cognitive dissonance has been heavily studied. And the research has shed further light on cognitive dissonance, its causes, and effects.

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance can happen in just about any area of your life and occurs when your current behavior contradicts one of your beliefs. You may experience cognitive dissonance in any aspect of your life, including your health, spending habits, political beliefs, or religious beliefs.

A commonly used example of cognitive dissonance is smoking. When you smoke, you may feel guilt because you know smoking can cause cancer and that you should stop. Your smoking creates a conflict with your belief system.

Here are other examples of cognitive dissonance:

  • Wanting to buy organic products to support companies that don't use pesticides but going with the non-organic option since it is cheaper

  • Eating steak at a wedding even though you have a negative view of the cattle farming industry and its treatment of animals

  • Going on a trip with a friend and agreeing to stay at a resort that doesn't have eco-friendly practices even though it goes against your preference for eco-friendly travel destinations

Signs of Cognitive Dissonance

If you are experiencing cognitive dissonance, it is likely that you feel a broad range of emotions when thinking about your actions or decisions in comparison to your beliefs and attitudes. Guilt and shame are likely at the top of that list because you know what you are doing goes against your belief system. These feelings may even lead you to hide your actions or decisions from others or to feel like you are a hypocrite.

You also may feel uncomfortable after making a decision or doing something—especially if it goes against a strong belief.

To reduce the dissonance, you may try to suppress your feelings, rationalize what you have done, or justify why you made a particular decision. And the greater the dissonance, the harder you will try to reduce the mental anguish you feel from it.

Related:The Effects of Stress on the Body, From Your Brain to Your Stomach

Causes of Cognitive Dissonance

There are several scenarios that can lead you to experience cognitive dissonance, including:

  • Experiencing forced compliance: Sometimes people experience cognitive dissonance when they feel pressured or forced to go against their morals or beliefs by a perceived authority figure such as a supervisor at work or an authority figure at school. This compliance might also be the result of an expectation or peer pressure.

  • Gaining new information: Sometimes learning new information can lead to cognitive dissonance, especially if you were engaging in a behavior that you later find out was wrong or harmful.

  • Making decisions: Every time you make a decision you are forced to decide between several options, which can cause cognitive dissonance. Your internal conflict can occur when you try to make your choice. Or, you might experience conflict after the decision is made, which can lead to rationalization over why you made the decision. Both scenarios lead to cognitive dissonance.

  • Comparing effort to reward: If you tend to place more value on a reward based on the effort you put into it, you may be at risk for experiencing cognitive dissonance—especially if you do not get the result you expected. When this happens, you may convince yourself that the outcome was OK or that you didn’t really mind all the effort, despite not getting what you wanted. When this happens, it is often referred to as effort justification.

Related:13 Things That Can Cause Stress

Coping With Cognitive Dissonance

Experiencing cognitive dissonance is just one part—the other part is often looking for ways to minimize the feelings that the dissonance brings. People deal with their cognitive dissonance in a number of ways.

You might decide that your choice is OK in comparison to your beliefs or you might minimize the negative aspects of your decision to feel better. Some people even seek additional information to support their decisions. In more severe cases, unresolved cognitive dissonance may lead to blaming and avoiding behaviors.

If you are experiencing cognitive dissonance, you can reduce your uncomfortable feelings by changing your existing beliefs, adding new beliefs, or changing your behaviors. While changing your beliefs or your behaviors is an effective way of dealing with uncomfortable feelings related to cognitive dissonance, this approach is not always a linear process.

Another way to cope with cognitive dissonance is to slow down when making decisions. Taking the time to explore the pros and cons before making a decision can help you feel more comfortable with your choices and minimize some of the cognitive dissonance you may experience. Likewise, you also can challenge the behaviors that don't align with your beliefs and think of alternative ways of doing things that would be more in line with with you believe.

It also can be helpful to see a mental health professional, particularly if you feel like the cognitive dissonance you are experiencing is impacting your day-to-day life or your self-esteem. A therapist can help you examine your beliefs and behaviors and help you find effective ways for alleviating the cognitive dissonance you are experiencing.

A Quick Review

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state of discomfort that occurs when your behaviors and beliefs do not align. An example of cognitive dissonance includes smoking even though you know it's bad for you and feeling guilty because of it. Often, people try to reduce cognitive dissonance by rationalizing their behaviors, hiding their choices from others, avoiding thinking about the issue, or minimizing the impact. But if you learn how to recognize cognitive dissonance, you can deal with it in an effective way.

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