Understanding Cognitive Dissonance: The Theory of Mental Conflict

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  • Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your beliefs clashed with your actions? Or perhaps you value honesty but told a white lie to avoid hurting someone's feelings. These situations create a form of mental discomfort known as cognitive dissonance. Social psychologist Leon Festinger, in his 1957 theory of cognitive dissonance, proposed that when our beliefs or attitudes clash with our behaviors, we experience a mental discomfort called cognitive dissonance. This dissonance motivates us to change something — either our attitudes or our behaviors — to achieve a state of balance, known as consonance.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is defined as the psychological tension or discomfort experienced when an individual holds two or more contradictory cognitions (beliefs, attitudes, or values) simultaneously, or when there's a discrepancy between one's beliefs and actions. These dissonant cognitions can be:

  • Beliefs that contradict each other (e.g., "Smoking is bad" vs. "I enjoy smoking")
  • A belief and a behavior that clash (e.g., "I believe in honesty" vs. "I lied to my friend")
  • Two behaviors that conflict (e.g., "I want to save money" vs. "I keep buying expensive things")

For example, consider an individual who values animal welfare but accidentally runs over a snake, or an environmentalist who discards trash carelessly after a night out. These situations create a conflict between their actions and their beliefs, leading to cognitive dissonance. The discomfort experienced in such scenarios motivates individuals to take actions to reduce the tension, either by altering their beliefs or their behaviors to restore psychological harmony.

Other Examples:

  • An environmentally conscious person littering after a party might experience dissonance. They could reduce it by picking up the litter (changing behavior) or convincing themselves it wasn't a big deal (justifying behavior).
  • Someone who dislikes gossip but participates in it might feel dissonance. They could address it by stopping the gossip (changing behavior) or convincing themselves the gossip is harmless (justifying behavior).

The Origins of Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist, introduced the theory in his seminal work, "A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance". Festinger's interest in cognitive dissonance began with his observations of a UFO cult led by a woman named Dorothy Martin. The group believed the world would end on a specific date, and when this prophecy failed, members did not abandon their beliefs but instead rationalized the failure by believing their faith had saved the world.

Sources and Magnitude of Dissonance

Festinger highlighted two primary sources of cognitive dissonance:

  1. New Information: Continual exposure to new information challenges existing beliefs and attitudes, creating potential conflicts. For example, learning about the environmental impact of fast fashion might create dissonance for a fashion enthusiast.
  2. Decision-Making: Choices often involve conflicting options, and post-decision dissonance is common when individuals second-guess their choices. This can be observed when someone regrets a purchase or questions a significant life decision.
  3. The magnitude of dissonance depends on the importance of the conflicting elements and the degree of their discrepancy. The greater the difference and significance of the cognitive elements, the more intense the dissonance and the stronger the urge to resolve it.

How Do We Reduce Cognitive Dissonance?

Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory suggests that the primary motivation for individuals experiencing dissonance is to reduce the uncomfortable arousal by seeking a state of consonance—a balanced and harmonious state of mind. There are several ways people can achieve this balance:

  1. Changing Behavior: The most straightforward way to reduce dissonance is to change the behavior that conflicts with one's beliefs. For example, the environmentalist might decide to adopt stricter personal waste management practices.
  2. Changing Beliefs: Alternatively, individuals might adjust their beliefs to align with their actions. The same environmentalist might rationalize their behavior by believing that occasional littering doesn't significantly impact the environment.
  3. Adding New Cognitions: People might introduce new beliefs or attitudes that help justify the behavior and reduce the dissonance. The individual could believe that their overall contributions to environmental causes outweigh occasional lapses in behavior.
  4. Trivializing the Conflict: Finally, individuals may downplay the importance of the dissonant elements to reduce discomfort. The person might convince themselves that the snake's death was unfortunate but not as significant in the grand scheme of animal welfare.

Conclusion

Leon Festinger's model of cognitive dissonance provides a robust framework for understanding the discomfort that arises from conflicting beliefs and behaviors. The theory underscores the natural human tendency to seek consistency and avoid psychological tension, influencing how we process information, make decisions, and adjust our attitudes. By recognizing and addressing cognitive dissonance, individuals can navigate their cognitive conflicts more effectively, leading to healthier and more consistent belief systems.

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  • Source:
    • Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press.
    • Harmon-Jones, E., & Mills, J. (Eds.). (2019). Cognitive Dissonance: Reexamining a Pivotal Theory in Psychology. American Psychological Association.
    • Aronson, E. (1968). Dissonance Theory: Progress and Problems. In R. P. Abelson et al. (Eds.), Theories of Cognitive Consistency: A Sourcebook (pp. 5-27). Rand McNally.
    • Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive Dissonance: Fifty Years of a Classic Theory. Sage Publications.
    • Stone, J., & Fernandez, N. C. (2008). How behavior shapes attitudes: Cognitive dissonance processes. In W. D. Crano & R. Prislin (Eds.), Attitudes and Attitude Change (pp. 313-334). Psychology Press.
    • Gawronski, B., & Strack, F. (Eds.). (2012). Cognitive Consistency: A Fundamental Principle in Social Cognition. Guilford Press.
    • Bem, D. J. (1967). Self-perception: An alternative interpretation of cognitive dissonance phenomena. Psychological Review, 74(3), 183-200.

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