People tend to seek consistency in their beliefs and perceptions. Cognitive dissonance is what happens when new information contradicts an existing belief.
What is cognitive dissonance?
A dictionary definition of cognitive dissonance is ‘anxiety that results from simultaneously holding contradictory or otherwise incompatible attitudes, beliefs, or the like, as when one likes a person but disapproves strongly of one of his or her habits’
The American social psychologist Leon Festinger’s (1957) developed a cognitive dissonance theory that suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid dissonance.
When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance. When we experience this cognitive dissonance, it feels uncomfortable, so we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it in order to achieve consonance or agreement.
Sometimes, in an attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance, we can use unproductive and irrational behavior.
Examples of cognitive dissonance
Festinger used two examples to explain the theory.
The first is that of a smoker who continues to smoke despite knowing it is detrimental to health.
The second was a cult he studied who believed that the end of the world was coming and that a spaceship would come to rescue them. When the appointed time for the end of the world comes, and the world doesn’t end, they experience cognitive dissonance. The belief they held had come up against conflicting evidence.
Three ways of dealing with cognitive dissonance
According to Festinger, we can attempt to overcome cognitive dissonance in three ways:
Change the belief, attitude or behavior
For example, the smoker can choose to give up smoking. The cult members, realizing they have been misled, can choose to leave the cult. However, this is often difficult for people because habits and behaviors that are deeply rooted can be very hard to change.
Acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant belief
When we experience a cognitive dissonance, we can try to find new information that outweighs the conflicting evidence. For instance, in the example of a smoker, the affected person might choose to believe that the evidence that smoking causes lung cancer is not conclusive. He or she might also think that giving up smoking would lead to weight gain, which would also be detrimental to health. The person might then rationalize that keeping smoking makes sense.
In the case of the cult members, they might decide that the end of the world did not come as a result of their faith and continue to believe in the values of their cult.
Reduce the importance of the beliefs and attitudes
The third way to reduce cognitive dissonance is to change the attitude towards the beliefs in some way and thereby reduce their importance. In the example of the smoker, or in any other bad habits such as excessive alcohol intake or overeating, the person might choose to believe that they would rather enjoy a shorter, more pleasurable life than live a long one with no pleasures.
One of the points that dissonance theorists often make is that people will go to extraordinary lengths to reduce dissonance. These methods help the person experiencing cognitive dissonance to reduce the discomfort and anxiety caused by the conflicting beliefs. However, some of the ways we reduce cognitive dissonance are more healthy than others.
Cognitive dissonance can affect many of the decisions and actions we take in the world. Understanding how we overcome cognitive dissonance can help us to effectively change our beliefs and behaviors rather than fooling ourselves into disbelieving the facts.
Becoming aware of how conflicting beliefs affect our decisions can help us make better decisions in the future.