Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or values about a specific subject, action, or behaviour, resulting in mental discomfort.
As humans, we crave consistency in our existing beliefs, attitudes and perceptions.
Thus, any conflict that challenges our cognitive consistency often creates immense psychological discomfort, distress and inner turmoil.
When an individual experiences cognitive dissonance, they will often seek to minimize or dismiss any new information they have learned that may challenge their existing beliefs in an attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance.
According to an article from Verywell Mind, ‘’inconsistencies between what people believe and how they behave often propels them into engaging in behaviours or actions that minimize feelings of discomfort’’ (Kendra Cherry, July 2020).
Cherry states that people experiencing cognitive dissonance tend to relieve their discomfort in various ways, such as avoiding new insight or information that conflicts with their previous knowledge, rationalizing it, or rejecting it altogether.
Telltale signs that someone may be experiencing
Research suggests that we all experience cognitive dissonance and contradictory beliefs to some degree, but such behaviours are hard to detect and are usually unconscious acts.
However, there are several warning signs that someone might be experiencing cognitive dissonance. They include:
- Feelings of shame and embarrassment about a particular behaviour or action and thus trying to conceal such activities from other people
- Having intense feelings of guilt or remorse over something that happened in the past
- Rationalizing or justifying any decisions or actions that you’ve made
- Experiencing awkwardness or discomfort before making an important decision
- Doing things you might not want to do because of peer pressure or FOMO (fear of missing out)
Implications of cognitive dissonance
When people have dissonant beliefs, it can be hard to manage the conflicting cognition versus their actions or behaviour.
Moreover, if the gap between what people believe widely conflicts with how they behave, it can negatively impact their self-esteem and confidence.
For instance, if an individual’s actions or behaviours are out of alignment with their core beliefs or personal values – this can result in profound feelings of tension and psychological discomfort.
When behaviour contradicts
Such contradictory behaviours can erode an individual’s sense of self and their beliefs and ideas about the people and the world around them.
Inherently, conflict exists when someone believes one thing but contradicts that belief through opposing behaviours or actions.
For example, an animal lover who doesn’t eat meat feels pressured into eating it around a specific group of people, such as friends or family members.
Eating meat is entirely against their individual beliefs and values, yet the person’s actions say otherwise.
Another example of cognitive dissonance is when a person smokes at a social event (or elsewhere) despite having given up and no longer cultivating such unhealthy habits (likely because of peer pressure).
The type of discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance
The psychological discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance can vary, but, as a general rule, it typically involves:
Changing existing beliefs (when people experience dissonance)
When people experience dissonance, they often want to escape those complicated feelings as much as possible.
Therefore, cognitive dissonance often plays a central role in how people think, the kinds of decisions they make, and how they act and behave.
Social psychology researchers explain that people may engage in specific behaviours or adopt particular attitudes and beliefs to relieve the discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance.
As a coping mechanism, people may adopt conflicting beliefs to resolve cognitive dissonance. However, such unhealthy strategies may only add to the problem in the long term.
People often seek to resolve cognitive dissonance in various ways, such as:
- Concealing existing beliefs and behaviours from other people. An individual engages in such acts to minimize shame or guilt from having conflicting views and attitudes.
- Seeking out knowledge or information that confirms their beliefs. Such behaviour often gets referred to as confirmation bias, where people attempt to convince themselves (and others) that what they believe is authentic or the right way.
- Adopting attitudes and beliefs that justify or explain away the conflict and disparity between a person’s behaviours and beliefs. Such behaviour often involves a projection of blame, where individuals blame other people or other external factors for their wrongdoing.
What causes cognitive dissonance?
According to the literature, many scenarios and events lead to conflict and cognitive dissonance.
Such scenarios may involve:
#1. Decision – making
When people have to make specific decisions, large or small, this can often create greater dissonance, particularly when individuals get faced with two similar choices.
However, once the choice gets made, the individual in charge of decision-making will seek ways to minimize any lingering discomfort.
Such behaviours may involve rationalizing and justification as to why their choice was the best option to feel comfortable with their decision and any potential outcomes.
#2. Forced compliance
Perhaps one of the most challenging components of cognitive dissonance is forced compliance.
All this may result from peer pressure where a person finds themselves engaging in behaviours or actions that go against their beliefs or internal values.
Such an attitude change might be because of external expectations such as work, school, or a social event where a person feels pressured to act or behave in a certain way to prevent them from being judged or even fired from their job.
#3. Learning new information
People may feel discomfort when they learn new information or gather fresh insight on a specific topic or plan, all of which can lead to cognitive dissonance.
For instance, if one’s behaviour was previously justified, but new information reveals something that questions their past behaviours, decisions, or actions, this can create cognitive dissonance and severe psychological discomfort.
To cope with such discomfort, individuals will often seek ways to minimize or justify their actions in an attempt to relieve negative feelings, such as discrediting or ignoring any new insight or information.
Managing cognitive dissonance
According to cognitive dissonance theory, people resolve cognitive dissonance in various ways in an attempt to feel better; they may:
Minimize or reduce the importance of a conflicting belief
For example, an individual who detests foul language may find themselves using obscene words and offensive language in a social setting like a football match.
To resolve any distress caused by dissonant beliefs, individuals may tell themselves that swearing is not all that bad or that their behaviour is justified.
Add supportive beliefs that outweigh dissonant ideas
A typical example of the above is when someone learns that greenhouse emissions lead to global warming, yet they justify driving a gas-fueled vehicle to avoid cognitive dissonance.
Such behaviours may involve great effort in seeking further information that conflicts with any primary sources.
Change their beliefs
When people experience mental conflict, they sometimes adapt by replacing old beliefs with new beliefs.
Changing conflicting cognition is an effective way of managing dissonance.
However, dissonance reduction can also cause immense inner conflict as people go against their values and beliefs, such as political or religious views.
Health risks associated with cognitive dissonance
Psychologist Leon Festinger proposed ”A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” and offered numerous examples of how cognitive dissonance can affect peoples’ mental and physical health.
Festinger observed behaviours that mainly featured rationalization and justification centred around unhealthy behaviours.
One example of such behaviour might be when long-term smokers deem their smoking habit ”worth it” in terms of ‘’risk’’ versus ‘’reward’’.
For instance, an individual may downplay or dismiss any public information or awareness surrounding smoke-related health risks.
To rationalize their smoking habit, a person may say that if they were to give up smoking, they’d probably put on weight, which would lead to further health problems.
Using the above strategy, the individual reduces the dissonance and continues the behaviour.
According to research, cognitive dissonance can disrupt the beliefs, ideas, and perceptions that people hold about themselves and their capabilities, which is why cognitive dissonance can be so unpleasant and uncomfortable.
Becoming aware of any conflicting beliefs, values and attitudes, and how they impact our decision-making abilities can be the first steps to resolution.
Disparities between what we believe and how we behave can lead to anxiety, inner conflict and feelings of discomfort, and often, coping mechanisms that lead to bad choices (such as substance abuse).
However, depending on peoples’ behaviour, the process can also reverse and lead to better choices, positive change and personal growth.
If you would like more information about the content of this article or think you may benefit from counselling or any other treatment to improve your self-esteem, be sure to get in touch with one of our friendly team, who can help.