Cognitive Dissonance Theory

In this article, we will examine the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance. We will explore the problems that can arise from this phenomenon and we will evaluate the various successful strategies that can be implemented to rid ourselves of these errors.


What’s covered in this article? We’ll define the intriguing theory of cognitive dissonance so that you can fully understand the implications of this phenomenon within your own life.


What will I gain from reading this? You’ll understand how your own brain responds to the problem of two conflicting beliefs. Then you’ll learn how you’re able to rectify the resulting errors that are often formed from this psychological phenomenon.


What is cognitive dissonance theory?

What is happening when an individual holds two conflicting values or beliefs? Life is confusing enough without the added drama of human hypocrisy and selfish, irrational actions by our peers. However, this phenomenon mentioned above is as natural and assured to happen again as the sun will rise again tomorrow. It is important to understand this inherent human condition and how it affects ourselves and all the people around us. If we are to navigate this world with purpose, then it is essential that we understand this complicated situation as soon as possible.

Cognitive dissonance definition

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; when performing an action that contradicts existing beliefs, ideas, or values; or when confronted with new information that contradicts existing beliefs, ideas, and values.

A person who experiences inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and so is motivated to try to reduce the cognitive dissonance occurring, and actively avoids situations and information likely to increase the psychological discomfort.[1]

What is cognitive dissonance
What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive Dissonance examples

So what type of real-world conflicting positions would we expect to trigger dissonance?

Cognitive Dissonance example 1: Smoking

An individual chooses to smoke (First cognition) while fundamentally understanding the harmful effects on their body (Second cognition)

The person in our example is also somebody who frequently exercises for the benefit of their health, which implies that they do have an interest in their well-being. However, it is no secret that the act of smoking and the awareness of its effects have now formed conflicting viewpoints. How can one claim to legitimately care about their well-being, while simultaneously understanding the harmful effects of tobacco use and then choose to smoke?

It is important to note – that our smoker is in complete control over this choice. They’re not being forced against their will to hold conflicting beliefs. If our smoker happens to get challenged on this position, they should expect to experience dissonance. If however, our smoker was being forced against their will to hold conflicting viewpoints, then it is unlikely they will experience dissonance.

It is paramount to understand this distinction. If one is forced to hold an irrational position, then the responsibility is not theirs to own – it will become internally justified as an error of outsider perpetrators. If however, the conflicting position is self-inflicted. Well, then you have a clear case of cognitive dissonance on your hands. So now your brain is trying to figure out, what went wrong? Why do I hold irrational beliefs that I am ultimately responsible for?

Cognitive Dissonance example 2: The Monogamous Relationship

An individual is in a monogamous relationship. They are truly content with the expectations required of one another in their pursuit of trust. However, our individual has now decided in a moment of opportunity, to sleep with another person.

Our individual’s situation is now one of dissonance with two conflicting positions.

  • I have slept with another person.
  • My partner should not sleep with other people.

Once again, our subject has willingly chosen to put themselves into this position of conflict. What is happening here? How and why are many of us breaking these moral rulesets that are unequivocally created by ourselves, to begin with?

Moral Hypocrisy

Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse.

Robert Wright

 

Now we are heading down the rabbit hole of ethics. The unsolved human problem to reach a universal consensus on how our species should conduct themselves and what values we should all uphold. In our recent series on Ethics, I discussed the moral allegiances that we hold that we continuously shift and adapt to protect the ever-changing interests of oneself, that of one’s family, state or deity — A common contributor towards inevitable conflict worldwide.

However, what we are more interested in here, is why it is so seemingly easy to judge others to a seemingly high standard of rationality in our day to day observations and yet continuously move the goal posts of our own rational positions to suit our interests when we deem it so? Many psychological studies are now available that irrefutably confirm this typical human behaviour of moral hypocrisy: [2][3][4]

Thus, there seems to be a strong implication that unless you are consciously following a predetermined moral, philosophical code that you have manually chosen to rigorously uphold due to your impregnable belief in it — You are likely going to find yourself subconsciously colluding with your self-interests and that of your biological imperatives from time to time. This seems to often place temporary self-gratification at the expense of publicly stated beliefs. However, even those who seemingly claim to hold such a fortified position have fallen victim to the realms of moral hypocrisy.

Ted Haggard, American evangelical pastor
Ted Haggard, American evangelical pastor

No greater example of this phenomenon in action may surpass that of the story of American evangelical pastor Ted Haggard. A man of God who was once one of America’s most influential and respected evangelical leaders holding the attention of millions.[5] Pastor Ted had the respect of foreign dignitaries and even had the personal ear of former President George W. Bush whom he was known to meet with on a weekly basis.

“No pastor in America holds more sway over the political direction of evangelicalism.”

— Jeff Sharlet, American journalist and author

Is there no finer example of a successful human being who has their moral code more overtly evident than this man? His scripture, congregations and his deeds are all clearly defined by an explicit Christian moral manifesto.

However, only one year after Time Magazine would list Ted as one of the top 25 most influential evangelicals in America, male prostitute and masseur Mike Jones would publicly reveal the hidden lifestyle that Pastor Ted was living behind the scenes. Mr Jones dropped the bombshell that he and Ted had got together on a monthly basis to have sex and get high on crystal meth for the previous three years.

Not all moral contradictions are as majestic as Ted’s downfall, to showcase this example was to simply represent the potential reach that this phenomenon can have on people that you may least expect it from affecting. The scale of these dissonance triggers vary from the most mundane manifestations — Like the friend who claims to eat healthy food but regularly eats candy behind closed doors. To the mighty manifestations — Consisting of prominent godly men who smoke meth off the backs of prostitutes.

The biological immune system

Cognitive dissonance is your brain’s answer to this inner-conflict, and it is responsible for causing psychological distress to the belief holder as punishment for this clash – verified in various laboratory experiments.[6][7] This distress may also result in possible physical discomfort through anxiety and stress.

We can confidently assume that this internal distress mechanism is your body’s attempt at striving for internal consistency. [The consistency motive] Forming the motivation to reduce unbalanced positions and striving for logical consistency.

How does a person deal with cognitive dissonance?

For me, this forms the most significant segment of this write-up. I justify this belief because I must accept the inevitable, frequent nature of people holding conflicting positions in this world. Understanding the process that people must go through to break out of dissonance will allow you to be two steps ahead of these situations when they unfold.

The Dissonance Cure:

To resolve this mental imbalance, the individual must either:

  • Change the behaviour or the cognition: Our smoker decides to stop smoking. The balance is restored.
  • Justify the behaviour or the cognition, by changing the conflicting cognition: “Smoking is not harmful to everyone.”
  • Justify the behaviour or the cognition, by adding new cognitions: “I am training five times a week, I am healthier than most people.”
  • Ignore or deny information that conflicts with existing beliefs: “Smoking and working out is far more healthy than just smoking.”

It is highly likely that you have experienced friends, colleagues and even yourself at times having to navigate this process in real-time as they are engaging in mental warfare to bring back consistency to the moment.

As you can see, the effort to rid this imbalance may not be rational in its conclusion. The only thing that matters here is the belief holder finding their inner-balance. A frustrating situation to say the least for any outside observers that may find themselves unsatisfied with the outcome.

This development can have a huge effect in how people judge you accordingly. Potential ramifications of suppressing cognitive dissonance can extend beyond psychological distress. We can also suffer from trust issues within our personal and professional environments when people judge our inability to think consistently. So could you blame them? What are better examples available to judge a person’s worth, than that of their conduct?

Psychological Strategy

If you have made it this far into the article, then it is time to discuss strategy. We have established the nature of moral hypocrisy and the normality of its existence in everyday human behaviour as established through recent psychological studies. Cognitive dissonance is your brain’s solution to restoring the imbalances of your conflicting positions. However, if our cognitive dissonance is in play, we have seemingly failed to prevent it from happening in the first place. Ideally, cognitive dissonance should be our last line of defence in highlighting our irrationality. We are striving to navigate our environment with purpose and clarity. What separates a capable man from one who is not, is this self-awareness and the avoidance of unforeseen dissonance.

Benefits of hypocrisy

In the previous paragraph, we spoke of the strategic intent to avoid cognitive bias. However, this would not necessarily come into effect if we are intentionally hypocritical. One who is actively aware of their hypocrisy through deliberate tactics can walk the fine lines of dissonance without falling victim to its biological wrath. From a very early age, we all learn the skills of deception and hypocrisy in our childhood and begin to understand the benefits of success in this practice.[8] Avoiding punishment, influencing other’s behaviour and obtaining resources are just a few of the benefits on offer to a triumphant deceiver.

“There is often hypocritical deception involved in political and diplomatic negotiations, which generally start with principled, non negotiable demands that are negotiated away in the process of finding a compromise.”

– Michael Gerson, Political journalist.

The human adult is also inherently aware of the benefits of deception. Politics is arguably the highest practice in our society that rewards the most skilled and deceptive actors. With this fact, it should be very clear to all of you that not all external revelations of conflicting positions will consist of people ignorantly grappling with their cognitive dissonance. There are forces in this world who will actively deceive you in their efforts to procure power or gain the upper hand. And vice-versa, that is your call to make.

Hypocrisy in politics, Frank Underwood
Hypocrisy in politics, Frank Underwood

Cognitive dissonance in behaviour therapy

Cognitive dissonance is a highly useful therapy tool that has been used successfully to help people change fallacious beliefs and unhealthy behaviour.[9] The process begins with the patient transparently disclosing their current attitudes and explaining why they hold them. Our therapist will then introduce exercises, role-playing scenarios and tests to promote self-awareness. When the patient begins to display sufficient self-awareness, the therapist will have the opportunity to introduce the type of dialogue that triggers the awareness of dissonance within the patient. It is here where cognitive dissonance becomes a beneficial tool that actively motivates the person to reduce the stress of dissonance by changing the behaviour or the cognition.

Self-Diagnosis exam

Take a moment to think about cognitive dissonance within the context of your life. Analyse the beliefs you are passionate about and look for the cognitions that may be incompatible with one another.

Diagnose: Do I currently hold positions that would trigger dissonance if revealed to me? (Example: Do I claim to care about the environment while actively engaging in environmentally unfriendly behaviours?)

Treatment: Reassess your beliefs and change them if necessary to restore balance within. Refer to your purpose and your ethical frameworks to reach satisfactory positions.

Awareness: Recognise the symptoms of dissonance and override the biological defence reflexes when your position becomes compromised in future. Be critical of yourself – Figure out how you found yourself in this irreconcilable position and dismiss it the moment it creates an imbalance. Take responsibility and own up to your contradictions if you are actively engaging in discussion with others. People typically respect those who can own up to flawed beliefs and reassess their position appropriately. See: Arguing the capable way for further reading.

Suppressing cognitive dissonance to protect your ego will potentially result in many of the problems that we have highlighted in this article thus far. Use your newfound psychological awareness to improve your relationships and to better your understanding of the people all around you in this world.

Debate using mental warfare

Before we wrap this up, one last area on the theory of cognitive dissonance is its useful application during a debate. A skilful negotiator will often use logical rhetoric to bring our opponent into a state of cognitive dissonance (Either knowingly or unknowingly) Because it is within this psychological distress that our opponent may be forced to change their position or belief. If we can successfully lead our opponent into a state of cognitive dissonance and highlight their untenable position in the process – We are forcing our opponent to act upon one of the four choices mentioned earlier to restore their inner balance. This goal potentially brings you a step closer towards the opposition having to change their belief or cognition to one that benefits your position.

Summary of cognitive dissonance theory

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress experienced when an individual simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs.

A person who suffers from inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable and so is motivated to try to reduce the cognitive dissonance.

  • This can be achieved by:
  • Changing the behaviour or the cognition
  • Justifying the behaviour or the cognition, by changing the conflicting cognition
  • Justifying the behaviour or the cognition, by adding new cognitions
  • Ignoring or denying the information that conflicts with existing beliefs

Not all cognitive dissonance is bad. It is a useful tool in behavioural therapy to assist in changing fallacious beliefs and unhealthy behaviour.

Dissonance can be triggered by mundane manifestations that could have previously be seen as unsubstantial to matter. Dissonance can affect anybody who lacks self-awareness.

Conclusion

We have now extensively covered the foundations of Cognitive Dissonance theory. In the context of personal development and self-awareness, understanding this natural phenomenon becomes a highly beneficial tool in your ability to navigate your environment with more accuracy and clarity.

Time and time again as you read these articles, many of you will begin to understand (If you haven’t already) the significance that psychology has on our ability to develop and produce a lifestyle on our own terms. Our cognitive biases are undeviating in their biological agendas but conflict with our conscious intentions often. An internal civil war that is not worthy of men of capability. Forming an understanding of your cognitive biases and how they operate will strengthen your self-awareness and your ability to act with precision and implementation of astute methods.


References

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4 comments

  1. Excellent post. I think we have ideals that are instilled in us from the time we’re children. Whether it’s from our parents, schools, or mentors, we build ourselves into the people that we want to be. But a person’s underlying desire is always there. If a person risks everything in his life to mess around with another person, then the desire was always there. They just had discipline not to act on it previously. Many people lack will power. That’s why the fitness person will continue to smoke cigarettes. As you stated, politics is the worst for this and I find it hard to believe what any one of the them is actually saying. Especially because it goes beyond cognitive dissonance and into pure narcissistic behavior as most of them don’t even feel that what their doing is wrong.

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