Leon Festinger plays an important role in your life, even if you’re not aware of it. Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance refers to the internal discomfort we feel in moments of conflict between our attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. This dissonance is particularly powerful when a behaviour we engage in significantly departs from our own beliefs or values or when our actions contradict one of our deeply held beliefs. Festinger believed that the resulting discomfort and distress from such moments is too much for us to ignore, motivating us to take action to resolve it.
But how do we get into these scenarios in the first place?
Departing from our own values can happen for a multitude of reasons; peer expectations/pressure, in-the-moment frustration, a spur of the moment decision, or even out of desperate self-preservation.
So how do we reduce the discomfort that dissonance causes us?
The solution, it would seem, is to alter our relationship with an attitude, belief or behavior involved in the conflict. Our behaviours might be an obvious candidate for change or an apology. We might apologise for acting rashly or reflect on having gone against our beliefs. And yet our brain has a tendency to shift our beliefs in line with our behaviour instead. In part, this is just easier. It’s less painful for us to retrospectively justify our decisions to ourselves or someone else than to believe that we did something we didn’t agree with. And even though we can’t go back and change our behaviours, we can employ a range of mental manoeuvres in order to justify our past behaviour. A classic example is retrospectively increasing the desirableness or intentionality of the decision we made. When this is about small issues it seems relatively innocuous. But what about when our behaviours depart from a deeply held belief or cause significant problems for our health or in our personal life?
“I think the health risks associated with smoking are overstated, especially because I’m just vaping.”
“Yes I lied to them about sleeping with that girl. But I did it to protect them and their feelings. I’m looking out for them, really.”
What are the signs that cognitive dissonance might be happening?
- An uncomfortable feeling before doing something or making a decision
- Being ashamed of something you’ve done and going out of your way to hide it from those you care about
- Trying to rationalise your actions despite them disagreeing with your values
- Feeling intense guilt or unease when ruminating about a decision you’ve made
So what can you do about it?
- Get in touch with your values, be aware of what they are and reflect on why you hold them. This will make them more tangible in those moments where they might get compromised.
- Teach yourself to be ok with making mistakes. We all fail to meet our own expectations or follow our beliefs. Own them as a normal part of being human.