Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance holds quite a lot of significance in our daily lives. Read on for some examples and practical applications of cognitive dissonance in this PsycholoGenie article.
One of the most popular examples of the cognitive dissonance theory in action is when a cult believed a UFO would land on earth, and destroy everyone except them. When nothing of the sort happened, the cult justified it by saying that the aliens had given the earth ‘another chance’.
Cognitive dissonance is a very common phenomenon that we all experience in our lives from time to time. Our beliefs and our actions may not always be aligned with each other, causing us to feel strange, restless, nervous, or disappointed. Cognitive dissonance is explained as the mental stress or discomfort that one feels when having to act in a way that is contradictory to the individual belief system, or having to harbor two contradicting thoughts, or being introduced to new information that is thoroughly the opposite of what one has been believing so far. Cognitive dissonance brings about a need to justify actions that are contradictory to our belief system.
Introduced by Leon Festinger in 1957 in his book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, the Cognitive Dissonance theory focuses on how we as human beings always strive hard to make sure that our beliefs and actions are aligned with each other. In case they don’t, it makes us uncomfortable and we try to find reasons that will explain the conflict between the two. According to Festinger, “Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads toward activity oriented toward hunger reduction. It is a very different motivation from what psychologists are used to dealing with but, as we shall see, nonetheless powerful”. This means that human beings try their best to keep cognitive dissonance at the minimum, and go to great lengths to avoid situations that might cause them to experience cognitive dissonance. To deal with cognitive dissonance, human beings either change their beliefs to match their actions, or change their actions to match their beliefs.
Let us assume that a person is addicted to smoking, despite knowing how bad it is for his health. He is well aware that smoking is decreasing his life span day by day, and yet, he cannot stop himself from smoking about two packs daily. His action of smoking contradicts his thoughts of knowing that it is thoroughly injurious to health, and he experiences cognitive dissonance or psychological discomfort due to the conflict between his thoughts and actions. To feel better, he tells himself and others that he is not ‘addicted’ to smoking, but does it only because he enjoys it. Or, he may claim that it is a stress-buster for his high-profile job that mentally exhausts him. In either case, his excuse for smoking is a method for reducing the dissonance that he is feeling.
A student about to attempt an important examination is not as prepared as she should be in order to pass. She knows that cheating and using unfair means in an examination is not correct, and that she should just try her best, instead of achieving results the unethical way. Yet, she hides chits of paper in her pockets that contain some answers in them, and uses them to pass the exam. The student’s belief that cheating is wrong is thoroughly contradicted when she passes the exam by cheating, and she experiences cognitive dissonance. To reduce the mental conflict, she tells herself that she ‘had’ to cheat because her professor had deliberately set it in the most difficult way possible. She may also tell herself that since this was the first time she cheated, it was okay as she never had done it before. She may also feel, “Others cheat all the time, what is the big deal if I did it once?“
A man who is having an affair lies to his wife about having a late meeting. He knows he is lying to her, and that what he is doing is wrong. Despite knowing this, he still goes ahead with his action of lying to his wife. To reduce the dissonance in his mind, he tells himself that “what she won’t know won’t hurt her“. Aside from this example, lying in almost every situation invites cognitive dissonance as most of us have been brought up with the belief that lying is wrong, and unethical. Hence, when it is time for us to actually lie, we experience dissonance and restlessness, and it can also lead to a guilty conscience.
Miscarriage of justice is an unfortunate example of cognitive dissonance. For instance, if a man is put into prison for a crime he is suspected of committing, the authorities congratulate themselves on having put a dangerous man away. However, if evidence later proves that the man punished is in fact, innocent, the authorities will still claim that they’ve arrested and tried the right man. The evidence may be incorrect, but they are not. The authorities believe they are the saviors of society, what they do is always for the good. Hence, even if evidence proves otherwise, they will find claims that support their action of putting the man into prison― if he isn’t guilty of this crime, he definitely must be guilty of another.
As cognitive dissonance is also experienced when one comes face to face with new information or facts that contradict what he already knows, it is often felt in the field of education too. For instance, if a student has a firm belief and opinion about a theory, and his teacher presents it in a completely new light, in a way that contradicts his thoughts about that theory, the student is more likely to feel psychological discomfort and either tell himself that his teacher is wrong and he is right, or change his beliefs altogether. Similarly, this can happen with a teacher, too. If a teacher is explaining her analysis of a poem to her class, and a student contradicts her analysis by coming up with a newer and different explanation, she may not readily accept his version. She may tell him that he is wrong, or she may accept it as a possibility, and move on.
Cognitive dissonance is experienced on a large scale in a work environment. One example would be when a superior tells his junior that he needs to get a practically impossible task done pronto, or he’ll simply be replaced by some other subordinate. The worker now is caught between two thoughts― he has an impossible task to finish immediately, which he knows he cannot, or let the superior replace him with his colleague, which would mean accepting that the colleague is better than him. This psychological restlessness is cognitive dissonance. The worker now either will change his original belief about the difficulty level of the task and try it, or will stick to his belief and let himself get replaced by his colleague to reduce the psychological discomfort.
A second example of cognitive dissonance at the workplace would be if an employee steals a few office supplies for his own use. The employee knows that stealing is wrong, and that the supplies belong to his office and not him, which is his original belief about stealing. However, to match his action of stealing the supplies and to reduce cognitive dissonance, he will probably defend his actions by telling himself that he’s only doing it because he’s hardworking and he deserves a few privileges.
In addition to explaining human behavior, the cognitive dissonance theory also has practical applications in several different fields.
Cognitive dissonance is actually used as a tool for marketing correctly and getting the job done. For instance, a company may sell something to give a part of the proceeds to charity, and for that purpose, may send their sales-people to stop pedestrians and ask them to buy their product. These sales-people stop those walking on the streets and ask them to buy their product for a worthy cause. Now, the potential customers may not always be looking to buy the product, which may seem useless or silly to them. They have a choice between walking away from the sales-person or buying the product, and more than often, it is the latter. This choice actually causes dissonance in the potential customer who then tells himself that he has so much, he can surely spare a little for the less fortunate, and ends up buying the product though he doesn’t want it. Hence, dissonance is a tool used in marketing.
There are a large number of buyers or customers who buy certain products only because they believe the advertising that promotes those products. Hence, when a loyal customer of one brand comes across that brand’s competitor who has a better advertising strategy, cognitive dissonance is experienced as the customer wants to stay loyal to the brand he uses as well as try the competitor’s product, as it seems so much better from the advertisements. This dissonance is used by brands to ensure loyal customers through better and attractive advertising, which is why most brands have unique logos. The idea is that customers begin to associate the logo with that brand only, and distrust every other brand that manufactures the same product.
Teachers and education experts can use cognitive dissonance as a tool for increased motivation in learning. For instance, if a student is stuck on an incorrect belief about something, his teacher can use the dissonance to motivate him into finding out the real and correct fact in order to deal with the psychological discomfort that he is feeling. Thus the dissonance can actually be a source of motivation to study.
It indeed is true, cognitive dissonance is apparent everywhere in our daily lives. You can read more about the concept of cognitive dissonance here. Though it is difficult to indulge in actions contradicting our individual beliefs, we must always make sure that our thoughts and/or actions are correct and ethical. For instance, if we know smoking is harmful and unnecessary, we shouldn’t find excuses in order to justify our habit. Instead, we should stick to our belief about the risks associated with smoking and change our actions, instead.