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Understanding Cognitive Dissonance

Updated on April 10, 2018

What it is

Cognitive Dissonance represents a state of mind where the individual's beliefs are in conflict or completely contradict the practiced actions. For example, one may recognize that the consumption of foods high in calories is unhealthy, yet the person proclaims that they wish to pursue a diet that supports a healthy lifestyle.

There are many examples that can be used: political aspirations, smoking cigarettes, choices involving moral decisions. Often it occurs at an unconscious level and being made aware of this pattern can be a source of turmoil. When seeing this dissonance it others, it is advisable to approach with caution because that man or woman may be unaware of their discrepancies.

There are healthy ways to adapt and adjust by either changing your thinking, or changing your actions once you recognize and accept that you may be experiencing this state of mind.

In many ways, Cognitive Dissonance represents a common practice that can be interpreted as a defense mechanism. When viewed in others, it doesn't necessarily symbolize negative attributes concerning a person's character. In society, we allow people to save face and give them the benefit of the doubt for minor misgivings.

However, it is also healthy to be self-aware and that if some of your behaviors are not compatible with your mental ideals, some adjustments may be recommended.

A Brief History

The term was first coined by Social Psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s who observed a cult who believed the world would come to an end. When the world was not destroyed by the flood that the members believed was a prophecy, there were some who were embarrassed. There were others however who stated that it was the cult that had saved the world from destruction.

Festinger and his colleagues decided to set up a test in a lab where members were asked to perform a monotonous task and then convince other potential participants that the experiment was exciting. A reward was provided: the students who were compensated at a higher rate were honest about the task being boring. The students who were given a smaller sum of money, interestingly enough, rated the activity as interesting.

The outcome: the members who were given a larger reward could be honest because they were justly compensated. Those who received smaller gifts had to justify spending their time for so little money and thus rated the activity as being worthwhile.

When there is a conflict between a belief and an action, the mind has to make justifications for that discrepancy.

See the video for an example of the Festinger experiment

Some possible dangers with this thinking

When looking at the simplified definition of Cognitive Dissonance Theory, it may be easy to say that it one is just being hypocritical or that this is just a simple failure to live up to certain expectations. In some ways, that may be true. The person who eats unhealthy foods and neglects going to the gym may profess they wish to loose weight and become fit. In some ways, this is a fairly typical scenario that most readers may be familiar with in some way.

You may be a consumer who seeks to purchase a coffee maker that you believed had the capability to be programmed the night before. When you get home from the store, you realize that the coffee maker you thought you purchased is not the one you took out of the package. You may try to justify this by acknowledging the lower price you paid and be satisfied with the product that was not up to your original standards.

However, consider the risk of diabetes or heart disease. Failing to adhere to safe diet and engage in physical activity could really put your body at risk and even limit your lifespan. It is easy to dismiss certain behaviors in order to achieve a level of comfort, but to convince that there is no dissonance present, is not psychologically healthy.

In order to eliminate the dissonance, a change in behavior or a change in thinking must occcur.


Is it unhealthy to say one thing and do the opposite?

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Ways to eliminate Cognitive Dissonance

According to S. McLeod, there are ways to reduce this stressor:

1) Change one or more of the attitudes or beliefs to a constant one

2) Acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs

3) Reduce the importance of the cognitions (beliefs, attitudes etc.)

There are many views on this subject and the above is a fairly simple way to address this internal conflict.

One could take the approach concerning smoking and say that either one must stop smoking or could justify the consumption of tobacco by saying that life is short and that there are certain guilty pleasures that can be enjoyed regardless if they are healthy or not.

This approach may not be the option, but it removes the discomfort of recognizing that your beliefs do not match your actions.

A Simple Approach

A much more simpler and honest approach was outlined in the image at the beginning of this article:

You can either

  • Change your behavior - start eating vegetables and stop sugar intake
  • Change your belief - science is wrong.
  • Add a belief - food is here to be enjoyed. I eat to live and live to eat.
  • Ignore the conflict - it doesn't matter what I eat, I will still get sick.


A great explanation on the theory

In conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this brief synopsis on the topic. You may not have realized that this conflict actually has roots in social psychology. Perhaps you don't belief that it is that serious an issue.

However, it may be helpful to examine your beliefs and test to see if they are compatible with your practices. It's good to be of sound mind and body.

Recognizing the dissonances in others is something that I would caution you off should you feel the need to point it out. There's another perspective called attribution bias we all are victims of. Someone may not be aware their behavior is incompatible with their beliefs or there may be justifiable reasons for this inconsistency which you are unaware of. Pointing out the dissonance in others could be embarrassing or cause shock or trauma and even scar another.

As well, be cautious when you examine your own beliefs and consider safe methods of approaching your own examples of cognitive dissonance. You don't want to be too hard on yourself as well.

Was this helpful in your understanding of Cognitive Dissonance?

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© 2018 Finn Liam Cooper

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    • wpcooper profile image
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      Finn Liam Cooper 8 days ago from Los Angeles

      yes it is interesting how science comes to play in commonalities

    • The0NatureBoy profile image

      Elijah A Alexander Jr 8 days ago from Washington DC

      Finn, thank you for a more socially acceptable term for Hypocrite. What I call my "new conception" - a "new birth" has to have a conception, gestation and trivial before one can be "Born Again" - happened because of it. What I had done to my first wife was being done to me and I wanted to do something about who became my second wife's infidelity and in the process I saw "Karma" at work so I chose to ignore her actions and see if I could figure out what it really is and what is its purpose. Thus, I became the philosophy -lover of wisdom - I have become by exploring the unknown and opposite "judgmental adjectives" where I found my answer to all of the things we accept although are hypocrites because of it.

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