Cognitive dissonance or How we deal with inner conflicts and regrets

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One of the theories that had the most impact on me when I was studying psychology was Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. What does this theory involve? Basically, it refers to the tension or discomfort that we feel inside when we hold on to two contradictory or mutually incompatible ideas or when our beliefs are not in harmony with what we do (or we have done). This “tension” may be experienced as guilt, anger, frustration, regret or embarrassment.


The theory argues that when this incongruity or dissonance arises, the person tries to form new ideas and beliefs to reduce the tension until the set of ideas and beliefs are able to fit together. That is, when we notice that we have two incompatible ideas, we have to form new ideas (or modify the old ones) so our belief system is coherent. In a few words: We can’t stand perceiving ourselves as incoherent inside.


But this gets far more interesting when we focus on the cases where we have acted in a way contrary to our beliefs. For example:


1-     We smoke a cigarette even though we know that it’s harmful to our health.

2-     We haven’t gone to the gym despite the fact that it was our goal for the week.

3-     The house that we just purchased doesn’t live up to our expectations.


In the first case, the act of smoking goes against our beliefs that “we want to live a long life,” and “I’m a sensible person who makes the right decisions.” We have already smoked (or we keep on doing it). What is easier, to change an action in the past (impossible) or a habit (unlikely) or to change our beliefs? The third option is usually the easiest. So we add new beliefs, modify ones we already have, or play down the importance of incompatible beliefs to minimize the incoherence (“This is a slow process. It’s OK that I smoked a little. I’ll get around to quitting some other time,” “Scientists have been wrong about stuff other times. Who can say for sure that smoking really is so bad?”, etc.). We can modify our beliefs in many ways, but ultimately the goal is to place more value in the selected alternative at the expense of the unselected one.


With the second case, it would be the same: As modifying a fact about the past is impossible (the week has already passed and I haven’t gone to the gym), the only thing I can do is to change my internal beliefs (“It’s OK that I didn’t go. This is something that only matters over the long term. I’ll get around to going next week.”).


In the third case, it’s easier to change our beliefs than to sell the house, so we can start bringing up its redeeming qualities (“It is true that it’s a dump, but the views are very nice.”). Whatever it takes not to have that inner feeling of discomfort from having done something contrary to what I believe about myself!


As can be seen, cognitive dissonance explains our tendency toward self-justification very well. The anxiety that comes with the possibility that we have made a bad decision (or have done something wrong) leads us to invent new reasons or justifications to ourselves to support our decision or action. That is, something disrupts our schemas of ideas, and then it is easier for our mind to invent alternative explanations that minimize the impact of that thing than it is for us to confront reality. First I act, then I justify my action. When we realize what we have done (or not done), we try to justify it to ourselves to reduce the trauma. We can’t stand having two contradictory ideas at the same time, so automatically, we justify such contradictions, even if it’s with absurd new ideas.


There are more examples of where we apply cognitive dissonance. For example, when we want something and we can’t get it, we criticize and devalue it (this also applies to cases of heartbreak or unrequited love), or in the so-called “white lies”: lying is wrong but we have trouble telling the truth, so we devalue it in favor of lying (“It’s better for him/her if he/she doesn’t know about it and consequently doesn’t suffer.”), which allows us to lie without having to put up with the strong dissonance.


It is important to note that for this effect to take place, individuals must perceive themselves as freely choosing the behaviors that they engage in. If we are forced to do something against our will, there is no such tension… But be careful for convincing ourselves that we were forced also can be a self-justification to reduce discomfort!


So, the final question would be: Is it wrong to try to reduce dissonance? Far from it. It’s a mechanism that we use for our wellbeing. The only important thing is to be aware of when we use it so we don’t fall victim to self-deception. It’s that sometimes we tell ourselves something that is not quite true or with which we don’t quite agree, but then at any given time we use it to feel better about ourselves.

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