What Exactly Does Cognitive Dissonance Mean?

Let’s say you’ve been exercising like a boss—paying for virtual training sessions, jogging through your ‘hood, conquering any hiking trail within a five-mile radius—and eating healthy, all in a quest to drop that quarantine 15.

Then you go food shopping and spot a tub of edible cookie dough, which you put into your cart thinking you’ll only have just one spoonful here and there. Even though you buy it, you know you shouldn’t have because, well, sabotage. And that’s when the discomfort, guilt, and shame start to settle in.

This is cognitive dissonance—a mental conflict that occurs when your beliefs don’t line up with your actions. “It’s an uncomfortable state of mind when someone has contradictory values, attitudes, or perspectives about the same thing,” says psychiatrist Grant H. Brenner MD, FAPA, co-founder of Neighborhood Psychiatry, in Manhattan. “The degree of discomfort varies with the subject matter, as well as with how well the person copes with self-contradiction.”

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Another example is the smoker who knows very well that nicotine causes lung cancer but takes puff after puff anyway to ease anxiety in the moment—and then feels a sense of shame and guilt. “There’s some sort of discrepancy between what your values are and what you feel in that moment,” says Thea Gallagher, PsyD, assistant professor and director of the outpatient clinic at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety (CTSA) in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Or take the vegan who purchases a leather bag, the environmentally-conscious guy who buys a car that runs on gas, and the list goes on.

While cognitive dissonance in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, “when people avoid dealing with mental discomfort—unless the issue resolves on its own, which is usually unlikely with an inner conflict—it can lead to problems down the road,” Dr. Brenner says.

And, researchers believe it’s not an automatic feeling we get when we have contradictory beliefs—we experience it only when we’re aware there’s an inconsistency.

Where Did The Term Come From?

Way back in 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term after what would become a groundbreaking experiment. Festinger and his colleague asked 71 subjects to engage in some snooze-worthy tasks like turning the pegs in a pegboard for an hour. They were paid either $1 or $20 to tell a waiting participant that the task was fun. Afterward, when the subjects were asked to evaluate the experiment, those who were paid $1 rated it as more fun than those who were paid $20.

Confusing, right? What the experiment showed was that the subjects paid $1 experienced dissonance. Why? Because $1 wasn’t enough to warrant lying so they, in effect, convinced themselves that the task was actually enjoyable. Whereas, because the $20 group believed the amount was enough to lie, they didn’t experience dissonance.

To break it down further, the dissonance occurred between the $1 group’s cognition (they really didn’t want to lie) and their behavior (they actually did lie). Performing a task that’s inconsistent with someone’s beliefs is known as forced compliance. And in order to reconcile the inconsistent behavior with their beliefs, they reduced the dissonance they felt by changing their attitude towards the action (reporting it was fun). You follow?

What Festinger’s theory showed was that people need consistency between their attitudes and behaviors—even though achieving that balance isn’t always accomplished in a rational way.

Researchers have even found differences in brain activity during a state of cognitive dissonance. Brain scans showed that decisions associated with higher levels of cognitive dissonance elicited a visible electrophysiological signal in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area that monitors internal conflicts and mistakes.

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What Are The Effects of Cognitive Dissonance?

In the moment, cognitive dissonance can cause discomfort, stress, and anxiety. And the degree of these effects often depends on how much disparity there is between the conflicting beliefs, how much the beliefs mean to that person, as well as with how well the person copes with self-contradiction.

So, for instance, a vegan who fosters baby animals and volunteers at a local shelter might experience a whole lot more stress by eating meat then let’s say someone who always talks about exercise yet never gets off the couch. “People may experience psychological stress because they know they should have self-compassion, but at the same time feel a deep sense of shame and regret,” Gallagher says.

Thanks to the discomfort cognitive dissonance causes, people may rationalize their decisions—even if they go against their beliefs—steer clear of convos about certain subjects, hide their beliefs or actions from others, or even ignore a doctor’s advice. In the end, all of these tactics just help them repeat the behaviors, which they don’t really agree with anyway. Hello, living, breathing oxymoron.

How Can It Impact The Choices We Make?

Cognitive dissonance can be problematic if you start to justify or rationalize destructive behaviors. Or if you start to majorly stress yourself out by trying to rationalize the dissonance.

“I have patients who go on dating apps and tell me all they get is rejection. I like to remind them that they’ve rejected some people too, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. They didn’t hate them. They didn’t think they were disgusting. They were just like, ‘Oh, this person is not for me.’ But when they turn it around on themselves, they’re harsher and internalize the thought to ‘I’m horrible. No one likes me. I’m just a loser.’ This destructive pattern of thinking reinforces the dissonance and can shape behaviors to replay out this negative cycle for the long term,” Gallagher says.

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“Not many of us go into something going, ‘Hey, I’d really like to challenge my beliefs about this today.’ We usually like to stick to our beliefs. People resolve the dissonance by finding more information to confirm what they want to believe instead of trying to challenge it in a different way, which ends up just confirming the bias,” Gallagher says.

When cognitive dissonance goes unaddressed, it can not only cause angst, but it can lead to impaired decision-making, Dr. Brenner says. On the flip side, however, “When cognitive dissonance is properly addressed, it can lead to better decision-making and greater self-awareness,” he says.

“It can be helpful when you can identify it and ask yourself, ‘Why? How did I get to this place? How can I fix it? What behaviors can I do to challenge this?’” Gallagher says.

What Are The Signs You Might Be Experiencing Cognitive Dissonance?

Signs you might be experiencing cognitive dissonance include:

  • General discomfort that has no obvious or clear source
  • Confusion
  • Feeling conflicted over a disputed subject matter
  • People saying you’re being a hypocrite
  • Being aware of conflicting views and/or desired but not know what to do with them

“Developing a sense of inner conflict is a good thing to notice because it can lead to rigid beliefs and sudden changes in beliefs and behaviors,” Dr. Brenner explains. “If competing values, beliefs, attitudes, etc. are not resolved or integrated, it greatly inhibits the ability of groups to have constructive dialogue, making it difficult, if not impossible, to arrive at a satisfactory compromise,” he says.

What Can You Do To Ease Cognitive Dissonance?

The good news is, resolving cognitive dissonance can often lead to positive changes. And it’s not always about making huge changes. Sometimes, a little shift in perspective can go a long way towards healthier thought patterns.

“The key is identifying it, assessing it, and figuring out how to resolve it,” Gallagher says. “You have to identify which values are yours and which values are someone else’s. And if you’re taking on someone else’s values, then you have to ask yourself why,” she says. So, for example, if someone says, ‘I can’t believe you would spend money on a housekeeper.’ You have to figure out what your values are and what’s important to you, and then you have to be okay with them, Gallagher says. “Sometimes, there’s not a right or wrong; it’s what’s best for you and this time in your life.”

Dissonance can be reduced by changing existing beliefs, adding new beliefs, or minimizing the importance of the beliefs. Take, for instance, an example proposed by Festinger: A heavy smoker who knows smoking is bad for his health will experience dissonance because he continues to puff away. He can reduce the dissonance by:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Changing his beliefs on the effect smoking has on his health (that it doesn’t cause lung cancer)
  • Adding a new belief by looking for the positive effects of smoking (it reduces anxiety and weight gain)
  • Reducing the importance of the belief by convincing himself that the risks of smoking are miniscule compared to the risk of an automobile accident

Life can be complicated and our actions and beliefs can be hard to make sense of at times. Being aware of distressing discrepancies is an important first step in addressing them though. Something else to keep in mind—we grow and evolve over the course of our lives so the cognitive dissonance we struggle with today may resolve over time.

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Cognitive Dissonance FAQs

What is the simplest way to define cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is a mental conflict that occurs when your beliefs don’t line up with your actions. It’s an uncomfortable state of mind when someone has contradictory values, attitudes, or perspectives about the same thing. The degree of discomfort varies with the subject matter, as well as with how well the person copes with self-contradiction. One example is a smoker who knows all too well that nicotine causes lung cancer but takes puff after puff anyway to ease his anxiety in the moment—and then feels a sense of shame. There's some sort of discrepancy between what your values are and what you feel in that moment.

What are the effects of cognitive dissonance?

In the moment, cognitive dissonance can cause discomfort, stress, and anxiety. And the degree of these effects often depends on how much disparity there is between the conflicting beliefs, how much the beliefs mean to that person, as well as with how well the person copes with self-contradiction. Thanks to this discomfort, people may rationalize their decisions (even if they go against their beliefs), steer clear of convos about certain subjects, hide their beliefs or actions from others, or even ignore a doctor’s advice. In the end, all of these tactics just help perpetuate the behaviors, which they don’t really agree with anyway.

Is cognitive dissonance bad?

Cognitive dissonance can be problematic if you start to justify or rationalize destructive behaviors or if you start to stress yourself out by trying to rationalize the dissonance. When cognitive dissonance goes unaddressed, it can not only cause angst, but it can lead to impaired decision-making. On the flip side, however, when cognitive dissonance is properly addressed, it can lead to better decision-making and greater self-awareness.

How do you know if you're experiencing cognitive dissonance?

Signs you might be experiencing cognitive dissonance include: Discomfort of unclear origin, confusion, feeling conflicted over a disputed subject matter, people telling you you’re being a hypocrite, or being aware of conflicting views and/or desires but not knowing what to do with them.

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Last Updated: Nov 30, 2020