Humans generally strive for consistency in all areas of their lives, including their thoughts and actions. When we don't achieve that consistency, inner turmoil or cognitive dissonance is often the result. The theory of cognitive dissonance states that when a person's thoughts or beliefs do not align with their behavior, they will experience psychological turmoil. Holding two contradictory beliefs also results in cognitive dissonance. Although it sounds unpleasant, experiencing cognitive dissonance is not always a bad thing.
An American psychologist, Dr. Leon Festinger, postulated the theory of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s after he observed the life and failure of a cult. His theory was that humans need their actions to match their beliefs and thoughts. When this doesn't occur, discomfort motivates them to address the inconsistencies to bring back cognitive consonance or consistency. Dr. Festinger and his students at Stanford University conducted multiple laboratory experiments that supported his theories. Cognitive dissonance is still one of the most researched and influential theories in social psychology today.
Everyone has dealt with cognitive dissonance at some point, whether they recognized it or not. One example of cognitive dissonance is continuing to smoke despite the common, medically-proven knowledge that smoking causes gum disease, emphysema, and cancer. Continuing an unhealthy diet while wanting to live a more health-conscious lifestyle is another real-world example of cognitive dissonance.
Although each person experiences cognitive dissonance differently, people generally exhibit common behaviors to deal with dissonance. An individual may try to hide the belief or behavior, or attempt to rationalize it. They avoid taking in any new information that contradicts their belief, often by refusing to talk about certain topics, a practice that supports the confirmation bias thought process. People experiencing cognitive dissonance also ignore research, news media, and doctors' advice that confirms their feelings of dissonance.
The effects of cognitive dissonance vary from person to person, and the strength of the feelings depends on the degree of dissonance. Factors such as the type of belief, the value placed on the belief, the size of the disparity between the belief and action, and the number of inconsistencies present all affect the degree to which the person feels the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
The psychologist Dr. John M. Grohl recently suggested that personality plays a role in the likelihood that a person will experience strong feelings of cognitive dissonance. He posits that introverts are more likely than extroverts to feel the effects of cognitive dissonance, possibly due to the introverted tendency toward introspection. Research also suggests that the higher a person's need for consistency, the more likely they are to experience cognitive dissonance.
Living in a state of cognitive dissonance can feel a bit like not being true to oneself at the very least and like living a lie at the worst. This leads to guilt, anxiety, and shame, resulting in feeling overwhelmed and isolated if the person cannot correct the discrepancy. If consistency is not restored, more severe issues such as depression can develop.
Cognitive dissonance, like almost any other unpleasant feeling, can be managed and changed. People can work on eliminating the feeling in a few different ways. A person can add more consonant beliefs or try to reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs. They can also change the dissonant belief so that it is no longer inconsistent. Eliminating cognitive dissonance is not easy, but it is possible.
Positive reinforcement, the practice of rewarding behavior, is most often discussed in relation to children and puppies, but it is also a valuable tactic to dampen feelings of cognitive dissonance. While this practice won't eliminate the issue, it can weaken it. This was demonstrated by one of Dr. Festinger's Stanford experiments. He predicted that the higher the reward, the less likely a person will experience cognitive dissonance. His studies supported this theory.
Cognitive dissonance is not just an intangible sensation or theory. It has practical applications in decision making processes and problem-solving. That unpleasant feeling can help people identify when they have made an incorrect choice, or at least on that does not fit with their belief structure. It also helps people recognize the need to change problematic behaviors. Cognitive dissonance is a useful therapeutic technique some psychologists employ to help clients change unwanted behaviors and unhealthy thought patterns.
Cognitive dissonance can serve as an aspect of conscience in a person's life. To feel cognitive dissonance, the individual must have a certain level of self-awareness. Experiencing the effects can help people learn about themselves, recognize changes they have made consciously or subconsciously, and encourage and guide personal growth as they evaluate their lives and relationships to achieve consistency again.
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