What is cognitive dissonance? Cognitive dissonance can be summarized as a clash between two sets of conflicting beliefs, thus causing anxiety and discomfort. It is very difficult to hold on to two separate and contrasting beliefs simultaneously and when this happens we try to automatically make changes in order to reduce or eliminate the feelings of discord and dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is considered to be important because it plays a key role in how we make decisions, judgments, and evaluations.
Dissonance is one of the most highly researched theories in psychology and cognitive dissonance was first described in detail in the 1956 classic book When Prophecy Fails, written by Leon Festinger, Henry Rieken, and Stanley Schachter. Research for the book was carried out on a UFO cult who believed that the world was going to end imminently. The writers first hypothesized that the members of the group would experience significant cognitive dissonance when their prophecy failed to come to pass. When this event actually happened, as predicted, the group decided to share their beliefs with the wider world in an attempt to garner social support, therefore lessening the pain of dissonance.
Cognitive Dissonance Defined
There are many examples of cognitive dissonance in every day life and most of the time it involves some kind of conflict. Cigarettes are a classic and commonly postulated example of cognitive dissonance at work. Millions of people smoke, despite being fully aware of the many health risks involved: we know cigarettes are likely to shorten our lives, yet we simultaneously want to live long and healthy lives.
Another example might be a woman who is desperate to have children, yet she stays in a relationship with a man who has made it quite clear he does not want to have children. In this instance, the woman’s behavior is in direct conflict to her fundamental belief that she is destined to be a mother.
Purchasing is another area in which cognitive dissonance is fairly common. A woman might covet an expensive pair of shoes for sale in the shop she walks past every day on her way to work. Eventually she can stand the temptation no longer, so she buys the shoes, but because they were so expensive she has maxed out her credit card and is now crippled with buyer’s remorse. A similar thing happens when we buy a product and subsequently discover it to be inferior to our expectations—cognitive dissonance leaves us feeling angry and upset.
How can we reduce the discord of cognitive dissonance?
It is a horrible sensation when you feel conflicted. You are being torn in two different directions and your equilibrium is challenged as a result. So how can you minimize the discomfort of cognitive dissonance and smooth over troubled waters?
Psychologists believe there are three ways in which you can reduce the effects of cognitive dissonance. You can choose to focus on beliefs that seem more important than those causing the dissonance; you can decide that the dissonant belief is less important; or you can change the conflicting belief so it becomes more consistent with other behaviors and beliefs.