People tend to seek consistency in their beliefs and perceptions. So what happens when one of our beliefs conflict with another or previously held belief? It can lead to confirmation bias, the denial of disconfirming evidence, and other ego defense mechanisms.
āCognitive Dissonanceā is the term used to describe the feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs or feelings or ideas simultaneously. Cognitive dissonance theory is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.
Dissonance normally occurs:
ā¢ when a person perceives a logical inconsistency among his or her cognitions
ā¢ when one idea implies the opposite of another
ā¢ when there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors
The “ideas” or “cognitions” in question may include attitudes and beliefs, the awareness of one’s behavior, and facts. Now something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance.
When people’s ideas are consistent with each other, they are in a state of harmony, or consonance. If cognitions are unrelated, they are categorized as irrelevant to each other and do not lead to dissonance.
But a powerful cause of dissonance is an idea in conflict with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as “I am a good person” or “I made the right decision.” The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization, the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one’s choices.
A person who just spent too much money on a new car might decide that the new vehicle is much less likely to break down than his or her old car. This belief may or may not be true, but it would likely reduce dissonance and make the person feel better.
In the following diagrams we see arousal of dissonance and how an individual channelises oneās thought / behaviour.
Thus the theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. This plays a role in many value judgments, decisions and evaluations. Becoming aware of how conflicting beliefs impact the decision-making process is a great way to improve your ability to make faster and more accurate choices.
Cognitive dissonance can occur in many areas of life, but it is particularly evident in situations where an individual’s behaviour conflicts with beliefs that are integral to his or her self-identity.
Dissonance increases with:
ā¢ The importance of the subject to us.
ā¢ How strongly the dissonant thoughts conflict.
ā¢ Our inability to rationalize and explain away the conflict.
Dissonance is often strong when we believe something about ourselves and then do something against that belief. If I believe I am good but do something bad, then the discomfort I feel as a result is cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful motivator which will often lead us to change one or other of the conflicting belief or action. The discomfort often feels like a tension between the two opposing thoughts.
To release the tension we can take one of three actions:
ā¢ Change our behavior.
ā¢ Justify our behavior by changing the conflicting cognition.
ā¢ Justify our behavior by adding new cognitions.
For example, consider a situation in which a woman who values financial security is in a relationship with a man who is financially irresponsible.
ā¢ It is important for her to be financially secure.
ā¢ She is dating a man who is financially unstable.
In order to reduce this dissonance between belief and behavior, she can either leave the relationship or reduce her emphasis on financial security. In the case of the second option, dissonance could be further minimized by emphasizing the positive qualities of her significant other rather than focusing on his perceived flaws.
Again, a belief in animal rights could be interpreted as inconsistent with eating meat or wearing fur.
Noticing the contradiction would lead to dissonance, which could be experienced as anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, embarrassment, stress, and other negative emotional states.
Dissonance is most powerful when it is about our self-image. Feelings of foolishness, immorality and so on (including internal projections during decision-making) are dissonance in action.
If an action has been completed and cannot be undone, then after-the-fact dissonance compels us to change our beliefs. If beliefs are moved, then the dissonance appears during decision-making, forcing us to take actions we would not have taken before.
There are three key strategies to reduce or minimize cognitive dissonance:
ā¢ Focus on more supportive beliefs that outweigh the dissonant belief or behavior.
ā¢ Reduce the importance of the conflicting belief.
ā¢ Change the conflicting belief so that it is consistent with other beliefs or behaviors.
To conclude Cognitive dissonance appears in virtually all evaluations and decisions and is the central mechanism by which we experience new differences in the world. When we see other people behave differently to our images of them, when we hold any conflicting thoughts, we experience dissonance which increases with the importance and impact of the decision, along with the difficulty of reversing it.