What is Dissonance?

Published on: 11 Jan 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD

Sorting through your emotions can be a mind-taxing task. You love your sister —and yet, secretly, sometimes you despise her. You believe deeply in the necessity of sustainability, and yet you still haven’t purchased reusable bags…or halted your fast-fashion spending sprees. How can two opposite things be true? And why is it so painful when two different beliefs exist?

Welcome to the perplexing mystery of cognitive dissonance.

Defining Dissonance

“Cognitive dissonance” is, quite simply, the act of believing or behaving in conflicting ways. Leon Festinger, the researcher who discovered and named this phenomenon, studied a cult who believed in a prophecy indicating the world’s end was at hand. When the prophecy was, unsurprisingly, proven untrue, Festinger followed the cult members’ reactions — and found them more committed to proselytizing and outreach after the failed prophecy.

Festinger found that inconsistent beliefs and behaviors are psychologically painful: for instance, there’s probably a lot of tension when you hang out with your sister, knowing you love her deeply and yet find her nerve rattlingly annoying. And all those fast-fashion finds? You might cringe every time the polyester rubs your skin, even though you can’t stop yourself from hitting Buy on your latest discovery.

To settle these uncomfortable feelings, Festinger proposed that people will do one of three things:

  • Change an element to eliminate the dissonance
  • Add more elements to make things feel more consistent
  • Gather information that supports your belief system.

For example, you might go overboard on Christmas presents for your unlikable sister so you feel less bad about your negative feelings. Or maybe you finally give in and buy those reusable bags. Or, perhaps, you search out statistics on how much environmental damage fast fashion actually does, and decide your personal impact isn’t really that great.

After all, we all seek consistency between the person we feel we are and the person we present to the world. If sustainability is one of your core beliefs, you want to outwardly show your commitment to that philosophy —even when it’s hard.

Why Do I Need to Pay Attention to My Cognitive Dissonance?

Besides being stressful and annoying, it’s important to understand how your brain works in order to ensure you’re making the best decisions possible. Let’s start with that stressful feeling you get when you’re experiencing this phenomenon, using smoking as an example.

Many smokers actively want to quit smoking, but because they’re addicted to nicotine, things aren’t so easy. They’re experiencing cognitive dissonance: their internal self wants something desperately, but they physically struggle to achieve said desire. As a result, they might seek out information about how smoking isn’t harmful, or convince themselves that they’ll definitely be one of the lucky ones who gets through life scot-free.

Knowing how the psychology of cognitive dissonance affects your personal judgement is vital because you can recognize times when you might be justifying something that goes against your worldview, hopes, dreams, and desires —like convincing yourself that smoking isn’t harmful, or that your plastic bag usage isn’t that bad.

After all, no one likes to think that they might be wrong, or doing something incorrectly. We naturally seek out information that reinforces our behavior and calms the psychological pain of cognitive dissonance. Going through life unaware means you may not notice times when you’re simply justifying behavior, not acting true to yourself.

Keep in mind that not everyone experiences cognitive dissonance the same way. Some people really struggle to rectify their internal beliefs and external beliefs — that’s strong cognitive dissonance. For example, their heart might really ache to realize that they don’t like spending time with their sibling. Others aren’t really bothered by the disparity, experiencing ambivalence, not anxiety.

Handling Cognitive Dissonance

Recognizing your own cognitive dissonance is just the first step. Now, you need to figure out what to do with it —most likely, changing either your behavior or your beliefs so you can both stop telling yourself lies and stop experiencing the mental anguish of dissonance.

While understanding your own thought processes is an excellent start, it’s often better and easier to work with a mental health professional to understand how to resolve your cognitive dissonance. Making major behavioral or belief changes can be difficult, and there’s no shame in struggling — to be human is to embody contradictions. If all smokers could put down the cigarettes for good once they realize their altered thought processes and the dissonance therin, nicotine wouldn’t have such a hold on the population.

Working with a licensed therapist ensures you can not just recognize cognitive dissonance and the mistaken behaviors and beliefs it’s caused, but can help to reverse its damage. Instead of anguish, you can feel excitement and relief when you finally reconcile what you believe and what you do.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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