The psychological discomfort that one feels when his actions are not aligned with his beliefs is called cognitive dissonance, which all of us strive to avoid as much as possible. When it does happen, it is reduced in different ways.
Did You Know?
Despite all his work in the field of social psychology, Leon Festinger spent the latter part of his life in researching prehistoric archaeological data.
Suggested by Leon Festinger in 1957, the cognitive dissonance theory states that human beings always try their level best to have internal consistency, meaning that their beliefs, thoughts, and opinions match their actions, behavior, and attitude so as to avoid mental tension of any kind. If dissonance, discomfort, or inconsistency of any kind is experienced, we tend to feel psychological discomfort and strive hard to reduce it, or to avoid it altogether.
Cognitive dissonance is experienced to quite an extent in our daily lives without most of us even realizing it. This dissonance varies upon the magnitude of that particular situation― if it is something petty or insignificant, we don’t bother thinking too much about our dissonance, and we quickly reduce it, ignore it, and move on. If the cognitions (thoughts, beliefs) and actions are important for us, then we experience a greater level of psychological discomfort. For instance, something as small as having a wonderful opinion about a particular sweet first and then liking another one better might not cause a lot of cognitive dissonance, as you may change your belief about the one sweet being better than the rest quite easily. On the contrary, when the magnitude of the situation is higher, say, you know your doctor wants you to follow a strict diet to lose weight, but you end up eating a lot of fatty food on the second day of your diet. You may feel very restless, guilty, and psychologically uncomfortable then, until you have reduced the dissonance as much as you can.
As the theory states, we tend to want to have internal consistency all the time, and the slightest imbalance disturbs us. Reducing cognitive dissonance is an important aspect of ensuring internal consistency. Though it is important, it is hard to achieve, and so we try our best to come up with various tactics to please our mind. Festinger provided three basic reduction techniques of cognitive dissonance in his theory, as is explained in the next section.
Altering The Importance Of The Original Cognitions
One of the methods of reducing cognitive dissonance is to alter the importance of the original cognitions so as to reduce the psychological discomfort. Altering the importance of original cognitions could either mean that you increase the attractiveness of the chosen alternative, or decrease the attractiveness of your cognitions.
A smoker who knows smoking is injurious to health will justify his smoking by saying “Death will take me when it’s supposed to.” or “What’s meant to be will happen.” or “Smoking is recreational for me, it’s not an addiction.” Through this justification, he is decreasing the importance of his original cognitions (of smoking being bad for health) so as to reduce any dissonance that he might feel.
Adding New Cognitions To Support The Conflicting Behavior
Dissonance is experienced when the behavior we practice is conflicting with our beliefs, as is known. Another way of reducing this discomfort is to add new beliefs which support the conflicting behavior. Adding new beliefs helps outweigh the dissonance beliefs, which reduces cognitive dissonance to a great extent.
A woman who is overweight has been advised by her doctor to follow a certain diet, exercise, and lose weight so as to reduce any possible health risks. Her diet has been carefully discussed and designed, and it completely does away with junk food that poses a threat to her health. The woman knows why dieting is important, and that it is for her health, and not for any silly reason. Yet, she gorges on cakes, donuts, burgers, and other fatty food that is strictly taboo for her. The woman tells herself that, “It’s okay, cheating once in a while is allowed!” or “I’ll just exercise extra tomorrow and work this off.” or “The doctor is being unfair, my diet doesn’t really have to be this strict.” or “He didn’t say when I was to start following this diet. It could be from next week, for all I know! Why not enjoy now?” By telling herself this, she reduces the dissonance which she feels when cheating on her diet, as she has added new cognitions which support her conflicting behavior, which will outweigh her original belief about the need for a diet.
Changing Behavior Completely
Changing behavior completely means that we stick to our original cognitions, and change the conflicting behavior completely so as to act according to our beliefs. Here, importance is given to the original cognitions over the conflicting ones, and thus, cognitive dissonance is reduced. However, it can be really difficult for human beings to adopt this method of reducing dissonance, especially when both conflicting cognitions seem equally attractive.
An intelligent, highly ambitious woman values men who are similar to her, and despises those who lack determination and ambitions. Yet, her new boyfriend is a laid-back man who does not seem very interested in working or making anything of his life. The woman’s behavior of dating this man is conflicting with her original belief of despising such men. To reduce the dissonance she is feeling, the woman gets clear about what she wants from her ideal partner, and decides that she can no longer date this guy, and that she has to be with someone who matches her mindset. The woman reduces her psychological discomfort by breaking up with her boyfriend, and thus, changing her behavior completely so that her internal consistency is managed.
Broadly, all the reduction techniques and strategies are a part of the three basic methods to lessen cognitive dissonance. This concept has several practical applications in various fields.
Please note: The examples offered in this article are not meant to offend anybody or to hurt anyone’s sentiments.