What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

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Have you ever had an experience where you see yourself doing something you know you shouldn’t be doing — a behavior that you yourself don’t support or condone — but you find yourself doing it anyway?

Cognitive dissonance is that disconnect between what we believe and what we do — it’s an experience we all have at one time or another. While it can be uncomfortable and stressful to act in a way that feels contrary to what we believe, it’s a common experience. In a way, living with a little cognitive dissonance is simply part of being human.

What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

The term “cognitive dissonance” was first coined by psychologist Leon Festinger in his 1957 book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. In the book, Festinger argued that humans strive to live a life in harmony — where their belief systems align with their actions. When that doesn’t happen (i.e., cognitive dissonance), we begin to experience inner turmoil, and will usually strive to bring things back into harmony.

Perhaps the most common example of cognitive dissonance is a person who smokes. At this point, almost all of us are in agreement that smoking is bad for our health. So if you smoke regularly, your actions likely misalign with your belief system. You know smoking is bad for your health, but you continue to do it anyway.

According to Festinger, when people experience cognitive dissonance, they will do whatever it takes to get out of that state of discomfort. Most people will do one the following to alleviate their cognitive dissonance:

  1. Change their behavior so it becomes aligned with their beliefs.
  2. Convince themselves that what they believe is untrue, so that their beliefs become aligned with their behavior.
  3. Try to minimize or reduce the importance of their belief system.
  4. Take up other habits or behavioral modifications that serve to erase the undesirable effects of the harmful behavior.

If you take the example of smoking, someone who is experiencing high levels of stress related to cognitive dissonance may simply quit smoking. Or, they may try to find information that says smoking isn’t as bad for their health as they were told. Alternatively, they make start a new diet, take a supplement that they heard will mitigate the effects of smoking, or start exercising more with the belief that doing so will minimize the damage smoking is causing their body.

Cognitive Dissonance and Mental Health

Festinger believed that it is a human instinct to strongly dislike existing in a state of cognitive dissonance. When you are aware of the fact that your behavior is in disharmony with your beliefs, you may begin to experience a great deal of stress. This stress multiplies when you feel “stuck” in the cycle of cognitive dissonance.

Besides tension, you may experience dread and anger, especially if you don’t see a clear solution to your experience of cognitive dissonance. For example, let’s say you work at a job that doesn’t align well with your belief system or your life vision. You know the job is making you miserable, yet you don’t have any other options, and you can’t leave the job because you need to pay your bills.

When you don’t feel able to change your experience of cognitive dissonance, your mental health can deteriorate. Again, we are not supposed to enjoy existing in a place where our beliefs and behaviors or lifestyles are in disharmony, and when we feel unable to fix that problem, we are likely to become depressed, anxious, or despondent.

How Cognitive Dissonance Can Be A Good Thing

Now for some good news: While cognitive dissonance can certainly be uncomfortable, it doesn’t have to be all bad. For many of us, experiencing the difficult feelings that come with being in a state of cognitive dissonance can be a kind of wake-up call that something is off with our life and needs to change.

Take the “I hate my job” example. Yes, it may be true that for the time being you can’t just quit your job and neglect your bills or your need for food and shelter. But feeling that strong pull to want to make your life match more completely with your belief system can be a motivation to do whatever you possibly can to find a better or healthier work situation. This motivation can drive you to send your resume out like wildfire, reach out to old contacts for leads, or take a leap of faith and switch careers.

Therapy and Cognitive Dissonance

If you are finding yourself stuck in a situation where your beliefs and behaviors or life circumstances are in misalignment, speaking to a therapist can be extremely helpful. Sometimes just having a professional outside the situation to bounce your ideas and feelings off of, can help you see with more clarity how to rectify the situation.

Therapists can also help you understand and unpack “the narrative” you tell yourself about your life, and can offer other ways of looking at things or reacting to them. Your therapist may also be able to help you come up with some actionable steps for changing your behavior or lifestyle, and may help you see that there are more options out there than you might realize.

The bottom line is that cognitive dissonance isn’t fun at all, but when looked at from the right perspective, it can be exactly the thing that lights a fire in your soul to make some necessary and important life changes. Remember that you don’t have to do it alone, and that bettering your life may be hard, but you are so worth it.

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