Ever do something you know you shouldn’t? It could be anything from sharing a friend’s secret, to lying to your mom, to cheating on your partner; if your action conflicted with your values and beliefs, you likely felt a sense of unease and disharmony associated with your choice. Maybe it was a sinking feeling in your chest or a pit in your stomach, or maybe it was intrusive thoughts and feelings of guilt and shame. Tension and discomfort remind us of the inconsistency between our beliefs, attitudes, and actions.
Cognitive dissonance refers to the uncomfortable feelings that arise in the mind and body when either our beliefs and/or actions conflict with each other. It may result from acting in ways that violate our beliefs and values or it may result from trying to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. When these inconsistencies between beliefs and/or actions arise, we must change something in order to reduce or eliminate the dissonance we are experiencing.
The degree of dissonance we may experience in various situations depends greatly on individual factors, such as already existing beliefs, values, experiences, preferences, and priorities as well as the degree to which the belief and/or actions are inconsistent. Cognitive dissonance is particularly common in response to situations where our thoughts or behaviors conflict with beliefs that are highly personal and/or considered very important to us. For example, if you identify as a kind, thoughtful individual, but pretend not to get a text message from a close friend in distress, cognitive dissonance is likely to arise.
The greater the intensity of the dissonance, the more pressure we feel to relieve the discomfort. There are numerous ways to address these internal conflicts, each of which varies in terms of their effectiveness at reducing dissonance and increasing alignment with beliefs, values, and actions. Regardless of which approach you take, you are likely to perceive it as more favorable and attractive than other alternatives you considered before the decision was made (you can thank the confirmation bias for that!). That means we have less of a chance to recognize the error in our ways and to engage in actions to repair those ineffective, unhealthy approaches!
Let’s look at the example of smoking cigarettes. Most people are aware that smoking is unhealthy, but many people do so despite this knowledge. How do they engage in a behavior that conflicts with their beliefs or values without being bogged down in constant feelings of dissonance and conflict? In general, people have 4 options when faced with this type of dissonant situation:
1. Focus on supportive beliefs that outweigh the dissonant belief. What are the reasons why they should continue smoking despite the risk? Essentially, what evidence is out there that support them in believing that while smoking has drawbacks, it’s worth it. This might sound like, “smoking helps me maintain a healthy weight” or “smoking makes it easier for me to socialize with co-workers.” Essentially, while they acknowledge that smoking is bad for their health, they are able to rationalize their behavior by focusing their attention on the many benefits smoking provides them.
2. Change their belief to match their actions. This involves attempts at convincing themselves that they don’t actually value their health or that cigarettes aren’t really as dangerous as people say. They’ve chosen to continue smoking and need to alter their belief system in order to support it. They might say, “plenty of people who smoke cigarettes never get lung cancer, so it can’t be as bad as they make it out to be” or “all that matters to me in life is that I enjoy the ride.” They do not want to change their behavior, so they instead focus on adjusting their beliefs to fit their behaviors. This tends to be a common, but often generally ineffective approach.
3. Reduce the importance of the conflicting belief. The person might look for reasons as to why they should not worry about the drawbacks to smoking. They acknowledge that the risk is there, but they look for reasons why it shouldn’t matter to them or shouldn’t sway their actions. They might say, “sure, it’s risky, but so is everything else, should I give up driving too?” or “I’m really healthy and make good choices in every other area of my life, everyone has a vice.” In the face of hypocrisy, people who take this approach attempt to minimize the negativity or persuasiveness of the belief that contradicts their chosen behavior in order to feel less dissonant about their choice.
4. Change their behavior to match their beliefs. In this case, the person would quit, or at least limit, smoking so that their actions begin to align with their beliefs and values. It involves making a choice to create consistency in beliefs and actions. A person in this position might say, “I used to smoke, but I got tired of feeling guilty about the impact on my health and wallet, so I gave it up.” While often difficult, especially when giving up something cherished or deeply important, this strategy is the single best way to successfully eliminate dissonance in the short- and long-term and to cultivate mental wellbeing and harmony.
Cognitive dissonance plays a role in shaping our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and can arise in a wide variety of situations and contexts. It’s important that we understand our beliefs and values and maintain awareness of whether they are consistent with each other and with our actions. Lack of understanding and awareness often lead us to rationalize in unhealthy ways in order to continue thinking and acting the way we “want,” which largely serves to maintain our inconsistencies, keeping us stuck, tense, and anxious. When we pay attention, we allow ourselves the opportunity to transform our experiences and encourage growth and change by challenging ourselves to create alignment in our beliefs and actions. This consistency in thoughts and behaviors is essential to true wellness and inner peace.
Check in next week where we’ll discuss our next critical thinking pitfall, the false dichotomy!