Cognitive dissonance is the psychological stress your brain undergoes when you have two beliefs, values, or attitudes that conflict with each other and your behavior goes against one of them. When your mind faces such inconsistency between your thoughts and actions, you find reasons to justify the option you’re already inclined towards.
You want to buy a car and you have already determined a budget and three choices. You visit the showroom to check one of your shortlisted models. During the conversation, the salesman invites you to check a different car and mentions, “From what you’ve mentioned, I think you’ll love this model instead.”
And the moment you set your eyes on it, you’re mesmerized. The fabric of the leather seats, the shine of the metallic paint, and the softness of the steering wheel lighten each one of your senses. One problem though – it costs 15,000$ above your budget.
But, by now you’re in love with the car and craving to buy it even though you know it’s too expensive. Your brain fights two contradicting beliefs.
- The need to save money
- The want of an exquisite car
If you decide to buy the expensive model, you find reasons to justify your actions such as:
- An expensive car lasts longer
- The car has better safety features
- The maintenance cost will be lesser
In reality, none of those factors influenced your buying decision. You made up those reasons to reduce the discomfort caused by your behavior going against your belief of saving money.
In this article, I’ll explain what cognitive dissonance is with real life examples along with ways to combat it.
- What is cognitive dissonance?
- Examples of cognitive dissonance:
- Why does cognitive dissonance occur?
- 1. Reducing own discomfort
- 2. Forced Compliance
- 3. Effort involved with the ideal choice
- 4. Changes or new information
- 5. Combination of three biases
- Experiments and research conducted
- How to resolve cognitive dissonance?
What is cognitive dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort you feel when you have two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes and your behavior chooses one of them. You unconsciously try to minimize such discomfort by justifying your behavior or choice, sometimes by making foolish reasons to convince yourself.
Cognitive dissonance is more likely to occur when you have two conflicting beliefs, one of which is attractive/easy but irrational, and the other is uninteresting/hard but rational, and your actions lean towards the irrational option. Though you might cite reasons to other people, in reality, you’re trying to convince yourself to avoid your internal conflict.
Let’s go through an example to illustrate how it works.
Stephanie is a working professional who spends all her salary by the end of the month. But, she wants to save money to have reserves for emergencies.
As soon as the month begins, she puts on a serious face and tells herself, “This month, I will ensure I save at least 500$, come what may”
That weekend as she is walking in the mall beside a fashion outlet, she notices the new collection released. A few hours later, she walks out with a designer balloon top and a pair of black ankle boots.
When she has no money left at the end of the month, she justifies her shopping decisions by saying, “I had no clothes to wear for Susan’s party next month. Those clothes and boots were on sale. I’d have to shell out a lot more money later, so I made the right decision.”
Stephanie went through cognitive dissonance. She began with a belief backed by logic – to save money. But, her mind went through conflicting choices – saving money for the future or relishing the purchase of new goods. She succumbed to her desires and made an irrational choice. So, whenever she feels the discomfort of not sticking to her original decision, she makes up reasons to explain her behavior.
Examples of cognitive dissonance:
You and I are the victims of cognitive dissonance too. Here are some examples which illustrate how such behavior affects the thoughts we have and the decisions we make.
1. Skipping exercise:
A part of you knows that exercise is important for health. You buy a gym membership to start working out, but you visit the gym only for three days in the first month.
To justify your inability to exercise, you come up with reasons such as:
- My work schedule was crazy this month. I did not have the time.
- I take care of health in other ways. My friends smoke, but I don’t. So, it balances out.
- I ate lesser junk food this month and took care of my health
Deep inside, you know that none of those reasons are real. You skipped the gym because you were lazy, but your mind doesn’t want to accept it.
2. Failing to work on your long term goals
Many employees are happy with their current role or profession. If you’re one such person, you constantly feel you should change your job or start a business of your own.
You want to start working towards your dream, but you don’t. You procrastinate. Every day you convince yourself that you’ll start the next week, but you don’t. You begin your day as usual, finish your office work and watch Netflix in the evening.
When someone asks you if you have started your hunt for a new job or taken the first step towards your business, you mention, “I wish I could, but I’m so busy these days.” Even if your work is indeed busy, you disregard the time spent on Netflix. You convince yourself that you need a break after a long day’s work.
In reality, even though you’re busy, you don’t make a change because you’re unwilling to step out of your routine and comfort zone. Therefore, you justify your behavior with different reasons you can come up with.
3. Impulse buying
You feel good when you buy new things you like, don’t you? Therefore, you try to justify your purchases as “needs” even though they are “wants”.
At the beginning of the article, we went through an example of buying a car above the budget. Similarly, you buy different things even if you know you had better ways to spend that money and justify them with bizarre reasons. Even if your credit card bill is high and you have large debts to clear, you find excuses to explain why you had to buy what you just bought.
4. Eating meat
Pet lovers eating meat is cited as the most common example of cognitive dissonance.
Do you have pets at home? If you do, you’re an animal lover. Even if you’re not a pet person, many of us like animals. But, what do we eat? Bacon for breakfast, chicken for lunch, and tenderloin for dinner.
All meat eaters are aware of the poor conditions these animals are sheltered in. Besides, you do agree that the process of butchering is merciless, don’t you?
Yet, you maintain your love for both pets and meat. You justify this cognitive dissonance by making up reasons like:
- I need protein
- Even if I turned into a vegan, the killing wouldn’t stop
- That’s the balance of the food chain
5. Other examples
You will find many other examples of cognitive dissonance both in you and around you. All human beings experience it in some of their beliefs and action.
- Smoking despite knowing the negative health effects
- Putting up with things in a relationship
- Your partner curtails your freedom, but you justify the behavior by saying, “That’s out of love and care for me”
- Purchasing expensive brands because they last longer
- Even if the reason holds true, the actual reason for your purchase is different
Why does cognitive dissonance occur?
Psychologists have performed extensive research over the years to understand the causes behind cognitive dissonance. They narrowed it down to three major reasons:
1. Reducing own discomfort
The first reason is obvious. Your mind leans towards the ideal choice, but your behavior/action chooses what’s easy, lucrative, or tempting.
The conflict between the choice you should have made and the choice you made creates discomfort which bothers you. But, no matter how poor your choices are and how frequently they occur, your inner conscience yearns to follow the ideal behavior.
2. Forced Compliance
You experience cognitive dissonance when you have to perform an action that is against your core beliefs because you’re forced to.
Jerome is a sales executive who’s preparing a presentation for an upcoming board meeting. The sales have dipped in the last quarter, but his boss asks him to fabricate the numbers to paint a rosy picture. The boss explains, “We have a promising upcoming quarter, so we’ll balance out the numbers. Don’t think too much. Just do it.”
Jerome holds high standards of ethics for himself, and now he faces pressure to go against his values. He is under forced compliance because if he has to stick to his beliefs, he’d have to go against his boss and even possibly lose his job.
3. Effort involved with the ideal choice
When we have to change our habits or choose between two options, our logical brain asks us to pick the most rational choice. But when the path to get there involves hard work, difficult decisions, or uncomfortable actions, you pick the easier way out or stick to your usual habits.
Donald, a 42-year-old man is overweight. He gobbles pizzas and burgers every alternate day and gulps down a large tin of soda with every meal. Despite consuming more calories than necessary, Donald does not work out.
Does that mean Donald is unaware of the detrimental health effects of his eating habits and lack of exercise? Of course not. He is well aware that he needs to cut the junk food and work out. Though he has heard the same advice from his friends, relatives, coworkers, and fitness experts, he isn’t willing to take the trouble because it is painful. He has the good intention to lose weight, but he cannot convince himself to do it.
When your ideal decision requires an effort that you’re not willing to put, you face cognitive dissonance.
Effort causes cognitive dissonance in another method too. We value things that we have already put considerable effort into and choose to stick to them.
Take for example, Charlotte, an entrepreneur who started her fashion designing business 2 years ago. Despite her umpteen efforts and neverending hours of hard work, her venture isn’t working as expected. A part of her knows that her idea is flawed and that she should wrap things up and move on. Yet, a voice inside her complains, “But you’ve spent 2 years on the idea already. You can’t just let it go.”
When you have to go against a belief that you have invested effort into, you experience cognitive dissonance.
4. Changes or new information
After you make a decision, circumstances can change or new information could come to light. In such situations, your logic may no longer remain valid. Yet, you try to justify your prior actions because you do not want to carry the guilt of poor judgment.
Change of circumstances:
For example, you decide to invest in gold as a method of diversifying your portfolio. After 3 months, due to market conditions, the gold price drops. Now, though the outcome wasn’t due to your lack of due diligence, you defend your investment because you don’t want to accept that you made a bad decision. When your friend comments that you shouldn’t have invested in gold, you reply, “but Gold is a limited commodity. Sooner or later it will shoot up. I can hold until then.”
New information available:
Cognitive dissonance can also occur when new facts challenge your existing belief.
Let’s say you’re an ardent fan of a politician for his administration skills and ethics. One day, you hear allegations on the news that he’s sexually harassed women and underage girls. At first, you dismiss the claims assuming the opposition party is trying to tarnish his image. But within a few weeks, two more women speak up about a similar experience. And then a few more.
The case doesn’t go forward and the news dies off in a few months. No one knows the truth, but you face a moral dilemma where you’re not sure if you can respect the politician anymore. One part of you believes he couldn’t have done it and the other wonders why multiple people would make false allegations.
(Please note: These are hypothetical examples. Whether gold is a good investment or if politicians are prone to such false allegations is not the point of the discussion)
5. Combination of three biases
Cognitive dissonance occurs due to a combination of three biases.
a. “I don’t have any such mental biases”
If you assume your brain isn’t vulnerable to different cognitive biases, you’re more prone to making an error in judgment. Each one of us is susceptible to these mental fallacies, whether you notice them or not, and whether you acknowledge them or not.
b. I’m better, kinder, smarter, ethical than the others
We tend to believe that we’re better than the average in terms of our intelligence, ethics, and morality. Various studies have shown how a majority of people rate themselves as above average, no matter what the skill is.
But that can’t be true, can it? Therefore, cultivating humility to admit your own flaws is a strong attribute of self-improvement.
c. Confirmation bias
We tend to accept facts that match our belief and reject any evidence which goes against it. When we make a decision, confirmation bias influences our thought process to come up with reasons to justify our choices even if they do not make logical sense.
Experiments and research conducted
1. Experiments on forced compliance
Festinger and Carlsmith performed experiments in 1959 to test if forcing people to perform a boring task causes cognitive dissonance. In the study, 71 male participants were given an uninteresting task of turning pegs on a pegboard for 1 hour.
After the task, the subjects were asked to enter the waiting room and share their experience with future participants for the same test. Researchers asked the subjects to tell others that the task was exciting.
Out of the 71 participants, one group was paid 1$ to lie, while the other was offered 20$. After the entire exercise, each subject had to mention if the whole experience was enjoyable.
The results showed that people who received 20$ expressed higher satisfaction. Festinger & Carlsmith concluded that since 1$ was not a big enough incentive to overcome the discomfort of lying, the participants in that group experienced dissonance. The group which received a higher payment for the same task had lesser dissonance because 20$ seemed like enough money to turn pegs.
2. Experiments on effort involved
This experiment involved female participants who volunteered to participate in a discussion on the psychology of sex.
Researchers divided the participants into 3 groups
- Group 1: The participants of this group were put through mild embarrassment. They had to read out obscene words such as prostitute, vagina aloud after which they had to participate in a boring discussion about how sex works in animals.
- Group 2: This functioned as a control group where the participants were directly sent to the boring discussion on sex.
- Group 3: The participants of this group were put through severe embarrassment. They had to read obscene words aloud, followed by reading an explicit sexual passage to a male experimenter before participating in the boring sex discussion.
After the experiment, each participant rated the boring discussion and how interesting they thought the other participants were.
Results showed that females who had to go through severe embarrassment rated the discussion the highest. Since they had gone through trouble and awkwardness to participate in the discussion, they were convincing themselves that they extracted value out of it.
How to resolve cognitive dissonance?
From the article so far, you’d assume cognitive dissonance is always detrimental. But that’s not true. It helps you change your behavior by correcting many of your mistakes. For example:
- You’re careful about the words you use after you lost your temper the last time
- You refrain from volatile investments after you incurred severe losses
- You limit your alcohol during work parties because you threw a tantrum in the last event
When you experience dissonance between your ideal behavior and actual action, the discomfort teaches you a lesson and prevents you from repeating a similar mistake.
But you need to avoid cognitive dissonance when you make false reasons or excuses to reduce the discomfort between your belief and actions.
Here are 3 ways to tackle dissonance. Please note that these ideas can appear like stating the obvious.
1. Change behavior
When your belief mismatches with your behavior, the easiest solution is to change or eliminate the conflicting behavior itself.
- If you’re worried about smoking leading to cancer, stop smoking
- If you’re worried about going broke during retirement because you’re a spendthrift, stop blowing money
- If you’re disappointed about your daily routine of wasting time, stop procrastinating
Though the tactic sounds straightforward, taking the ideal action is another story altogether. You struggle to change behavior because that itself is the source of cognitive dissonance. You’re unable to align your action with your belief due to some impediment. If matching real behavior with the ideal choice was that easy, everyone would do it and cognitive dissonance would no longer exist.
2. Change your mindset
When you experience cognitive dissonance, your mind leans towards changing your actions to match the belief. But what if your belief itself is wrong? You’d experience discomfort for nothing. Wouldn’t it serve you better if you changed your mindset instead?
For example, you hear about a blogger who made 2 million dollars in his first year of blogging. So you tell yourself, “If he can do it, so can I.” So, you set a goal of making 2 million dollars in one year for yourself.
3 months later, you realize you’re nowhere on track. You curse yourself, your methods, and your routines even though you’re working 14+ hours each day. But are your actions incorrect or your mindset? Is it possible that your unrealistic expectations are causing dissonance? Maybe making 2 million dollars in the first year of blogging has other factors in play. Maybe such success stories are outliers.
Cultivating an exercising habit is another example. Let’s say you’re obese, but have never attempted to lose weight before. All of sudden, for one reason or another, you decide to lose 25 pounds. So, you start with intense motivation to achieve your goal. You sign up for a gym membership, lift dumbells like you’re possessed, cut all your sugar intake and eat only salads like a supermodel.
After 2 weeks, you find yourself on the couch again. You experience dissonance because you failed to stick to the habit of working out and eating healthy.
But again, have you considered the possibility that your mindset was incorrect and not your action? Maybe you’d have stuck to your routine if you started only with one of these: working out, or eating healthy. By putting your mind and body through massive change, you overwhelmed yourself.
When you experience dissonance between your belief and action, the natural tendency is to change the action. But take a moment to evaluate if your mindset needs a change.
Again, like the previous tip, implementing this is easier said than done.
3. Reduce the importance of beliefs
Eliminating or changing your belief isn’t straightforward, especially when you’ve cultivated such thinking over the years. Whenever you have trouble altering your mindset, try to reduce the influence of the belief by looking for examples or counter-evidence.
For example, Laura believes that women aren’t offered senior roles in an organization. Though she is a high performer, she believes her efforts will lead to nothing. Therefore, she does not bother working on an improvement to avoid the discomfort of her effort going in vain.
Now, Laura cannot change her thought process like a switch because she has noticed men receiving leadership positions throughout her career. To reduce the impact of such belief, she can look at other famous women who overcame similar challenges and attained the goal which she believes is impossible.
Though the change in belief isn’t guaranteed to deliver the result Laura is looking for, it can motivate her to put in her best effort.
Please note: Whether women are discriminated against in leadership positions isn’t the point of the discussion. The purpose of the example is to find ways to reduce your dissonance so that you operate within your locus of control.
4. Tell yourself it’s temporary
When your action goes against your belief on one occasion, you tend to resolve your mental discomfort by making up permanent reasons to create harmony. Such an approach can cause you to slip back into old bad habits or prevent you from cultivating good habits.
You started exercising a week ago and stuck to the schedule all 5 days. This week, your boss assigned you more work, and you do not have the time to go to the gym. Therefore, you convince yourself that your schedule won’t allow time for consistent workouts now or in the future. As a result, you stop exercising completely. In the upcoming week, even if the workload is light, you don’t workout because you’ve resolved the mental conflict by making up a false reason already.
Another example. You quit smoking a month ago. In the last few weeks, you’ve resisted different situations to take a drag. One night, you catch up with your old friends to party. Due to company and the fact that everyone is blowing smoke right in your face, you give in to the temptation and smoke. The next day, you face dissonance about your smoking habit. You choose to take the simpler path and smoke again because you believe you’ll never be able to quit.
In scenarios like these, you’d achieve better long time results if you tell yourself that such occasions are temporary exceptions. If you convince yourself that such events are the norm, you’ll resort to your old habits.
Please note that such an approach is a tactic to reduce your mental discomfort and not a real solution.
No matter how successful, decisive, or mentally strong you are, cognitive dissonance occurs in your brain. No human being is spared from it.
Awareness of how your mind reacts to such conflicts will help you be mindful about your decisions. I wish I could tell you that you could combat cognitive dissonance with ease, but unfortunately despite knowing how it works and mastering the tips above, you’ll still have trouble resolving your mental conflict the ideal way.
But, none of us are perfect and never will be. Even if this newfound insight about yourself helps you make a handful of good decisions and avoid an occasional mistake, the effort is still worth it.
Mcleod, S. (n.d.). Cognitive Dissonance. Cognitive Dissonance Theory | Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html.
Heck, P. R., Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (2018). 65% of Americans believe they are above average in intelligence: Results of two nationally representative surveys. PloS one, 13(7), e0200103. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0200103
Goethals, G. R., Cooper, J., & Naficy, A. (1979). Role of foreseen, foreseeable, and unforseeable behavioral consequences in the arousal of cognitive dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1179–1185. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1999
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.