Cognitive Dissonance introduced in 1957 by Dr. Leon Festinger is one of the most influential phenomena in the history of psychology.
It occurs when we hold two or more contradictory ideas or beliefs at the same time, or when new information does not fit with our existing beliefs. It can occur in many areas of life, but it is particularly evident in situations where thoughts and beliefs that are integral to our self-identity conflict with existing reality.
How Cognitive Dissonance Impacts Us?
Cognitive dissonance shows itself in our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and plays a key role in many of our evaluations, judgments and decisions. When it comes to our deeply rooted habits and beliefs, the dissonance becomes even stronger and more obscure. Sometimes they are so dominant that even when evidence suggests that resulting behavior is harmful to ourselves and others, we still continue! For example, a person who smokes while knowing that smoking is harmful to his or her health has cognitive dissonance. But continues to do so and finds a “rational” way to justify it!
Another more common example of cognitive dissonance occurs in how we exercise our choices. For example in our purchasing decisions, or when we select another person as our representative, friend or partner.
Most people want to hold the belief that they exercise good judgment and make the right choices. When an item we purchase, or persons we select turn out badly, it conflicts with our previously held belief about our good decision-making abilities. Since we have an emotional investment in the decisions we make and don’t want to feel bad about ourselves, most people continue to justify and support their choices despite the contrary objective results.
Cognitive dissonance in many ways drives us through many of our actions and reactions on a daily basis. For instance, someone may take home office supplies, knowing it’s wrong and can have negative consequences. But they continue and alleviate feelings of wrongdoing by justifying that they don’t get paid enough, others are doing the same, that there are so many surplus supplies lying around wasting … etc.
“Cognitive dissonance drives us through actions and reactions on a daily basis.”
The greater the gap between our choices and objective results, the greater the dissonance and thus the internal conflict and tension, which then become the strongest barrier to our well-being and progressing in our lives.
Becoming aware of how conflicting beliefs impact the decision-making process is a great way to improve our ability to make more accurate choices.
The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that we have an inner motive for avoiding inconsistencies in order to maintain harmony between our perceptions, beliefs and behaviors. The root of this intrinsic motive is to maintain an overall state of internal balance or homeostasis which the brain requires for preserving our survival.
When anxiety resulting from cognitive dissonance disrupts our homeostasis, the brain finds ways to reduce it and recreate the balance it needs. For example, we will try to reduce cognitive dissonance by using reasoning, denial, pretending, or surrounding ourselves with like-minded people to in order to confirm our views and avoid our beliefs being challenged.
In short, the brain interprets the imbalance created by the dissonance as a sign of danger to our survival and tries to reestablish balance as quickly as possible. However, these attempts, which in essence are a form of self-deception, waste the brain’s productive functioning and further agitates the mind. This, in turn, increases the dissonance and adversely impacts on our learning and decision-making abilities, relationships and ultimately our well-being.
How to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance
Methods to decrease cognitive dissonance have been extensively studied in a variety of contexts. According to currently suggested theories, we can use three methods to reduce cognitive dissonance:
- Change attitudes and beliefs
- Change the behavior and performance
- Change the Importance of Attitude and Belief
However, those recommendations seem to overlook an important fact about the brain: as confirmed by neuroscientific findings, strongly opposes any change, especially when it comes to our deeply held beliefs.
“The brain strongly opposes any change, especially when it comes to our deeply held beliefs.”
The question then becomes how can we succeed in reducing dissonance and the resulting inner conflict and tension which act as barriers to our progress? How can we increase the quality of our learning, decision making and relationships, and well-being?
I suggest the following:
- Remember that your thoughts, creator of your emotions and behaviors, are just an electrochemical reaction created in the brain and very transient. So, don’t take them too seriously since they will surely change the very next moment. As Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki says: Leave your mind’s front and back door open. Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea!
- Keep reminding yourself that the nature of the world we live in is constant change. Holding fixed ideas and beliefs pits us against this natural force; whereas flexibility in our views aligns us with it and helps us to move forward.
- Recognize that true progress is the result of challenging your thoughts and beliefs, not their endorsement by yourself and others.
Using these steps helps to reduce the brain’s inherent resistance about change, as well as our cognitive contradictions. As a result, we can create a cooperative relationship with our brain and pave the way for a simpler and faster way of achieving the results we want in life.