Have you experienced unease when walking by someone who is homeless and not opening up your wallet — even though you feel like they do deserve help? Have you regretted cheating on a partner — even though you always swore you’d never do that? Or maybe you’ve felt a bit unsure why you find yourself supporting a conservative politician even though you’re strongly pro-choice.
Life can be messy. And sometimes we find ourselves doing things or thinking things that are completely contradictory to our values — or what we thought we always believed.
Recognizing the contradiction can be uncomfortable, and sometimes even anxiety-inducing, depending on how severe the contradiction is or how significant those contradicted thoughts or values are to you. The discomfort or tension you experience as a result of that contradiction is called cognitive dissonance.
And even though it can be uncomfortable, it’s not necessarily something that you can avoid, explains Paraskevi Noulas, PsyD, a professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City. “Cognitive dissonance is part of everyday life.”
It’s also not necessarily something that you should want to avoid, she adds. “It’s important to understand and know about this theory. [It helps us] be more insightful and self-aware.”
It explains a lot of common human tendencies, such as rationalization, justification, and why we shift our beliefs over time. And not dealing with the dissonance can affect your mental health and well-being.
Psychologists Have Been Studying the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance Since the 1950s
You’ve likely experienced cognitive dissonance many times before. What you may not have known is that psychologists have in fact named the unease you were feeling — and have spent a lot of time and energy studying it. The theory of cognitive dissonance was developed in 1957 by a social psychologist named Leon Festinger. It’s since become one of the most influential theories in the field of psychology, though it describes a super basic experience that humans deal with regularly. (1)
Festinger based the theory on the belief that humans want all of their actions and beliefs to be consistent. When that’s not the case — which happens very often, whenever you hold two contradictory beliefs or you think one thing but act in a way that’s completely counter to that belief — a discomfort arises. That “dissonance” can lead to all sorts of nasty feelings, including:
- Negative self-worth
Essentially, the internal conflict that results when you recognize the contradiction throws your mental balance (that feeling of “everything’s going well”) out of whack. You’ll naturally want to reduce the tension to return to — or close to, anyway — a happy place where things align in harmony.
People Experience Cognitive Dissonance in Real Life All the Time
Alauna Curry, MD, a trauma psychiatrist in Houston, says cognitive dissonance is widespread in the real world — and it’s problematic. “Not necessarily because it is ‘wrong’ in and of itself, but because it is counterproductive to us being who we say we are, or who we desire ourselves to be,” she says.
Most of us would like to say: “These are my beliefs, and I act according to them.” But that’s not what happens in the real world, and it’s why cognitive dissonance happens so often.
Sometimes the contradictions are easy to spot. Dr. Curry says to think of the following examples:
- A straight politician who sponsors anti-LGBTQ legislations has an affair with someone of the same sex
- An outwardly loving and capable caregiver abuses her own children at home
- A professional engages in a porn addiction all while serving in a strict religious role
Other times, it’s less severe, but distressing nonetheless. For example, say you’re committed to living a healthy life, but you slack off and sub your usual 45-minute workout for a Netflix binge and a pint of ice cream. When the dissonance sets in, you may feel conflicted, guilty, and like you’ve failed on your healthy-living goals.
RELATED: How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex
It’s human nature to want to reduce the dissonance. In the Netflix and ice cream example, you may decide to change your behavior — by committing to a more regular exercise schedule or by cleaning up your diet — or you may change your belief system and become a bit more lax about what you think it means to be healthy, explains Corrine Leikam, PsyD,?a?licensed clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.
You’ll Find Examples of Cognitive Dissonance in Communication and Advertising
Not only do you have to deal with cognitive dissonance that comes up due to your own thoughts or actions, but you may also experience cognitive dissonance as a result of strategic advertising.
“It happens all the time, to the point where we’re often not even conscious of it,” says Dr. Noulas. Think of the many advertisements that suggest you’ll only be cool or beautiful if you buy the product they’re selling. These ads stir up cognitive dissonance within you and force you to either:
- Absorb the negativity into your self-esteem, as in, “I don’t own that product, so I guess I’m not cool or beautiful”
- Buy the product, which of course is what the advertisers want you to do
These advertisements are all around us, and there’s no way to avoid them entirely. “It takes conscious effort on our part to be aware of the advertising lures and to separate the urge and desire from the practical and wise choice one should usually make,” Noulas says.
Encountering these types of advertisements frequently can lead to stress if you do take the messages at face value. But it can also lead to more self-awareness. Matt Johnson, PhD, a researcher and writer specializing in the application of psychology and neuroscience to marketing, says it’s important to recognize when you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance so you can take the healthiest approach to resolving the tension, which is to stand your ground and reject the advertiser’s message.
Cognitive Dissonance Can Affect Our Relationships
Cognitive dissonance can affect our relationships, too, Dr. Leikam?says. “It can play a big part in relationships, from friendships to marriage.”
Even though cognitive dissonance by definition is tension, it doesn’t always lead to big fights with your friends or partner. Let’s say your usually thoughtful husband forgets about Valentine’s Day and doesn’t plan anything. He doesn’t even get you a card. You may decide to confront him about it and tell him your feelings were hurt. Or maybe you’ll work through the contradiction you feel on your own. You can alter your beliefs — by deciding that perhaps he isn’t all that thoughtful after all — or rationalize his behavior to downplay the importance in your mind, by saying, “Oh, he had a really busy week at work. He probably just forgot. No big deal.”
“While this can be helpful sometimes, it can also lead us to compromise important values or beliefs we may not want to change, and can cause internal conflict,” Leikam says. Maybe you decide you’re okay with your husband being less romantic, even though those small, loving gestures were once important to you. Maybe that’s okay with you. But if deep down you still resent that behavior, that tension can lead to more problems over time.
A more severe example is when a person in an abusive relationship rationalizes, justifies, or makes excuses to make the behavior of an abusive partner seem okay, Leikam says. The victim, motivated by a desire to make the relationship work, might say, “Everything will be okay once he learns to manage his emotions better,” or “I deserved it for talking to him that way.” The victim is resolving the dissonance he or she may feel in a way that enables the abuser to keep up the abusive behavior.
“Another common occurrence is that the relationship starts out strong and the abuser often plays the part of a caring, loving partner or spouse before the abuse begins,” Leikam says. So the victim has a set of beliefs about their partner and may view the abuse as an exception rather than a reflection of the abuser’s personality. (2)
Cognitive Dissonance Is Part of Decision-Making
Cognitive dissonance is part of decision-making, too. The last decision you made — no matter how big or small it was — caused you to experience some cognitive dissonance. That’s because you experience cognitive dissonance any time you’re faced with choosing between two alternatives. Psychologists call it the “free-choice paradigm.” (3)
There’s rarely a perfect option in any decision. (4) Each option has some positive and some negative attributes. The more good options you have or the more alike the options are, the more cognitive dissonance you’ll experience.
In an attempt to reduce the dissonance — which happens in your mind, by the way, usually without you even realizing it — you may rationalize your decision. You’ll support the decision you made by making the one you chose seem more attractive and the one (or ones) you didn’t choose seem less attractive. After all, no one wants to admit they’re wrong, right?
The result is that our minds support whatever decision we made to make us feel satisfied that it was the right one.
For example, maybe you’re deciding between two restaurants for dinner on Friday night. Just because you choose the Mexican place doesn’t mean the Italian place is awful. But you might find yourself saying, “I don’t like their pasta anyway” or “the Mexican place is a much better value” in order to convince yourself that you made the right choice.
Justifying that way might seem like a way of being dishonest with yourself, but it’s perfectly natural, says Michele Leno, PhD,?a psychologist and the founder of?DML Psychological Services?in Farmington?Hills, Michigan. And it can be a good thing if you recognize the dissonance, take the time to really think through your options, and make better decisions. That will result in less dissonance, and there will be less of a need to rationalize later.
Here’s How and Why to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance
Inconsistencies between beliefs and actions, or between two beliefs or values, happen all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re enjoyable. “When a person is holding themselves in contradictory stances, attempting to hold opposing viewpoints, they have to expend mental energy to block out their own hypocrisy,” Curry says.
It’s impossible to avoid cognitive dissonance entirely, but reducing or resolving it helps you get over that mental stress and tension. In fact, your brain will naturally attempt to do so. “In any instance where our beliefs are inconsistent, we essentially have a really profound psychic discomfort, and we must act in a way that resolves that conflict,” Dr. Johnson says.
And how you go about it can be a good sign of your mental health, Leikam adds.
But how do you do it? There are three basic routes to eliminate the dissonance: (1)
- Change your beliefs
- Change your actions
- Change the way you perceive your actions (as in, justify the behavior or think about what you did or thought in a way that makes it seem less contradictory)
“This is not as simple as it may seem,” Leikam cautions. Some of the routes to reducing the tension, such as by rationalizing your behavior or even denying what happened, aren’t very healthy. But there is a silver lining: Cognitive dissonance can lead to increased self-awareness, which can lead to growth, Johnson says. That’s the positive side to cognitive dissonance and why no one needs to avoid it.
Being more mindful and recognizing when you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance can motivate you to change whatever is not consistent in your life. In doing so, you’ll get back to that place of harmony, and you’ll likely be happier as a result.
“Doing the work of learning emotional awareness, self-searching, and working to dismantle beliefs that result in harmful action choices toward ourselves and others can be an invigorating and wonderfully validating experience for ourselves and others we love,” Curry says.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Harmon-Jones E, Harmon-Jones C. Cognitive Dissonance Theory After 50 Years of Development. Social Psychology. 2007.
- Harrison J. Commitment and Acceptance of Relationship Violence. The Pegasus Review: UCF Undergraduate Research Journal. 2005.
- Shultz TR, Léveillé E, Lepper MR. Free Choice and Cognitive Dissonance Revisited: Choosing “Lesser Evils” Versus “Greater Goods.”?[PDF]?Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. January 1999.
- Jarcho JM, Berkman ET, Lieberman MD. The Neural Basis of Rationalization: Cognitive Dissonance Reduction During Decision-Making. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. September 2011.