Cognitive Dissonance

Smoking is injurious to health. You read that on a pack of cigarettes and go on to taking out one for yourself and smoke. This is a classic example of Cognitive Dissonance or simply put, mental contradiction. Let’s understand how:

Thought 1: Smoking is bad, but I am healthy.

Thought 2: I am a smoker.

These two thoughts are inconsistent (or contradictory) with one another giving rise to cognitive dissonance. It’s like not being able to walk your talk. Remember the “The One with the Apothecary Table” episode of the TV show, Friends? It’s an example of Phoebe being in Cognitive Dissonance and then resolving it later.

Why does cognitive dissonance occur?

Leon Festinger, the psychologist who came up with the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in 1957, said that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and behaviour in harmony. When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviours (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. That is the theory. In real life, though we strive to reduce the extent of dissonance.

Fun fact: The opposite of cognitive dissonance is cognitive consistency.

There are three causes of cognitive dissonance:

  1. Forced Compliance Behaviour
  2. Decision Making
  3. Effort

Forced Compliance Behaviour

A situation when you’re forced to do something that you do not want to do but still do.

Example: You are a transwoman born in a conservative family is being forced to dress up and act like a man to please her family.

Thought 1: I love my family and respect the values they brought me up with.

Thought 2: I’m a woman and have a responsibility towards myself.

You are battling a severe identity crisis.

Decision Making

Having to make a decision that does not comply with your values, belief system or common behaviour.

Example: You are a book reviewer in a popular publication and your friend is a writer. He has recently published a book which you found absolutely shitty. But, your friend requests you to write a positive review of his book.

Thought 1: The book is shitty.

Thought 2: Writer is my friend.

You find yourself in a pickle.


Achieving all your dreams and goals with years of work and determination only to realise that this is not what you wanted.

Example: All your life you wanted to be rich and famous. By hook and by crook, you create a life of luxury and recognition and you look back at the person you were when starting.

Thought 1: I created my dream life with great effort.

Thought 2: I sacrificed all my values and principles.

Everything now seems meaningless to you.

Cognitive Dissonance and our idea of self

Self-standards Model of Cognitive Dissonance argues that dissonance begins when people commit a behaviour and then assess the meaning of the behaviour against a standard for judgement. That means, that your values and your idea of self greatly influences the dissonances you face in life. For example: A goon may not feel uncomfortable (dissonant) stealing from people but would expect honesty from his pack. Here, cognitive dissonance may come across as hypocrisy.

In the self-standards model, the three approaches — Self-consistency (Aronson, 1992), Self-affirmation (Steele, 1988), and the New Look perspective (Cooper & Fazio, 1984) — use different attributes and standards of self to assess the psychological meaning of behaviours. However, all three of them arrive at a single conclusion: Self-knowledge mediates dissonance.

Using Self-standards model to your advantage

If you want people to love your club, make the initiation process difficult.

People usually equate a high amount of money, time and effort to value. The more money, time or effort is spent on getting something, the more valuable it is perceived. So, if your club is sub-par, make the initiation process really difficult.

This was proved by the Aronson and Mills in 1957 in a theory called Effort Justification. They divided the participants into three groups: Group 1 will not be admitted to the club, Group 2 will receive an easy initiation test and Group  3 will receive a difficult initiation test. After participants were admitted to the club, they discussed a very boring topic. Later, they rated how enjoyable the discussion was. Group 3 rated it as more enjoyable and high-quality than the other group.

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Using cognitive dissonance to your advantage

Selective Exposure to avoid dissonance

It is simply a tendency to selectively avoid information or experiences that might challenge or come across as incompatible with our existing beliefs and thoughts and create cognitive dissonance. In “The One with the Apothecary Table” episode of Friends, Rachel tries to selectively keep Phoebe away from the shop’s window.

Fiction writers are pretty fond of the concept of cognitive dissonance, and often term it as conflict or tension. The resolution is the whole premise of the story. The character wants to do something, but something is stopping him from achieving his goal. The more dissonance writer adds, the more compelling the story becomes. As you can infer, we go through cognitive dissonance at almost every step of our life.

What to do when you experience cognitive dissonance?

To get into a state of cognitive resonance, i.e, establish consistency, you can do any of the following:

Option 1: Change one of the thoughts. Either start believing that smoking isn’t bad or quit smoking.

Option 2: Add a new thought that helps rationalise the inconsistency by outweighing the conflict. Yes, smoking is bad and I’m a smoker, but I make up for it with other healthy habits. Or that it helps me calm down.

Option 3: Trivialise the inconsistency. Yes, smoking is bad and I’m a smoker, but I don’t give a damn because I’m healthy. Or that I don’t smoke that much.

Option 4: Deny the inconsistency. I don’t think there’s a direct correlation between smoking and cancer because non-smokers too get lung cancer.

These measures are such common sights where we come across as hypocritical, making excuses to justify our choices, make tough choices, talk ourselves out of guilt, etc. For example, a woman who believes that people are inherently good, but her husband is abusive experiences cognitive dissonance. She then tries to justify his actions by saying that he was traumatised in his childhood or that the extreme nature of his work is to blame and the man is just a victim.

In the above-mentioned Friends episode, Phoebe goes on to buy the lamp justifying her actions. This is called Minimal Justification wherein less of a punishment or more of a reward can motivate a person to change and feel less dissonance. So, Phoebe weighs the guilt and happiness of buying that lamp (justifying her next action). She also raises the stakes of not buying the lamp with a hypothetical scenario of Rachel moving out of their apartment.

At times, we experience something called Post-decision Dissonance where decisions are irreversible. It can be resolved with constant assurances and reminders with the reasoning that the decision was made with logic and heart in the right place.

Why resolve it at all?

Everyone has a different level of tolerance for Cognitive Dissonance. Some people say that it gets in the way of finding the truth. Studies have shown that dissonance can make people physically uncomfortable. Some people experience severe anxiety too. Guilt, anger, shame, feeling of immoral and self-worth comes up in not being able to walk your talk.

If we go back to the example of a woman in an abusive marriage, you’ll see that most such (gaslit) women experience PTSD, anxiety, trust issues, personality change, etc. all because of chronic cognitive dissonance. So, it’s important to resolve it.

Factors contributing to the resolution

Studies found that you’re more likely to resolve the inconsistency if you feel have a choice in the matter or if you feel that not resolving will have negative consequences. In the example of smoking, you have both the choice and the negative consequences.

In the case of the book review, you probably don’t have a choice of turning down your friend. So, you absolve yourself of the responsibility of misguiding your followers (because you were forced to do so) and publish a positive opinion anyway. However, that may not be the case for a transwoman. Closeting her true identity will eat her alive and mess her mental condition. The negative consequences of staying quiet outweigh the negative consequences of coming out and so, she unleashes her true self.

Critical Evaluation of the theory

Cognitive Dissonance has broad applications in life displaying our urge to remain consistent with our attitudes, thoughts and behaviours no matter how irrational they are. However, since the theory is attached to behaviour, it is somewhat subjective. The term ‘dissonance’ itself is also vague. When Aronson revised the meaning of dissonance as an inconsistency between a person’s idea of self and being aware of the corresponding behaviour, dissonance appeared as nothing more than guilt.

Some people have also argued that not everyone acts as per the theory. You might have observed that many people can continue to live with dissonance and tension as part of their life. So, the only people acting as per the theory’s predictions are those with a heightened sense of self-awareness and those suffering from anxiety.

For further reading —

Book: Cognitive Dissonance: 50 Years of a Classic Theory by Joel M. Cooper.

Related topics: Cognitive Consistency — Self-Discrepancy Theory — Identity

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