Cognitive Dissonance: Why we do what we do

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it.”

~ Francis Bacon

Photo by Kieran Wood on Unsplash

Jim is a fitness enthusiast. Be it the P.T. hour or a free hour, he is either jogging around the ground and lifting some stones, or in the school corridors picking up chairs. Wasting even a single moment, he felt, would take him away by years from his goal. He spends at least 10 hours a week in the school gym — the one right beside his home — as he sees himself having the thew of a bodybuilder.

Hurriedly, he put on some clothes, brushed “traditionally”, and left for school. At school, he hardly heard what the teachers said as he was caught in a tug of war between his conscience and feelings. He was confused, but he simply chose to ignore this fact and go with the flow.

However, the devil came to haunt him as soon as he got back from school. He sat in a corner and cried. Sobbing, he tried to convince himself that it was just two days, and he had slept so much only because of the tiring school schedule which strained him. Blaming the school gave him solace. Having rationalized and justified his action with himself, he now had peace of mind. He was now stable to think and believe in his dream of becoming a bodybuilder.

Ever been a Jim yourself? Did you ever realize that you could convince yourself to believe something just because it does not corroborate with your belief systems?

Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist, along with his colleague James Carlsmith, observed: from a group of people who were given a monotonous task to execute — tuning pegs, the participants who were paid only $1 for lying to the next in line were more likely to say that the task was enjoyable as compared to the ones who were paid $20 for the same task.

He said that this was because the “$1 Group” justified what they were doing and in reality accepted that the task of turning pegs for an hour was indeed enjoyable! Leon Festinger later proposed that “humans strive for internal psychological consistency to function mentally.”(Wikipedia)

Cognitive Dissonance is the phenomenon of rejecting, avoiding, or debunking new information that is inconsistent or conflicting with ones existing beliefs and attitudes.

People like consistency. So, challenging one of their beliefs creates discomfort (dissonance). This discomfort could either cause the person to change their fundamental beliefs, or to simply reject new information and claim the source to be “not authentic”. The former being the less preferred as the blame game begins. While gauging authenticity is at the heart of successful media literacy, assigning it “not authentic” as a result of dissonance is anything but so. For instance, for Jim, to blame his school schedule served as a convenient reason to whitewash his brain into believing his beliefs were not compromised!

Studies have shown that the lesser employees of companies were aware they were dissonant, the more aggression and disruptive behavior they showed at the workplace. This was because of the pent-up emotions and stress caused after they work against their own beliefs. Such people were more likely to be counterproductive and stand in the path of the company in attaining its goals.

Cognitive Dissonance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is not ‘evil’ as some portray. A pre-existing set of positive beliefs can prompt you to reject the ones that could be harmful to you. While cognitive dissonance is not something that can or cannot be done by someone — it is a fundamental principle of the human psyche, the benefit and ability to know that you are dissonant is extremely beneficial while taking decisions.

The next time you face a decision/ have to accept new information, ask yourself these three questions:

1. Did I experience discomfort/confusion when presented with the information?

2. Did I ignore the facts that were presented?

3. Did I rationalize with/convince myself about the choice I made?

If your answer is a ‘Yes’ in at least 2 out of the three cases, chances are you have experienced cognitive dissonance!

So, in the end, the question becomes: How can you reduce or mitigate the effect of cognitive dissonance? Moria Lawler gives us three options:

1. Change your Beliefs

Apart from being the simplest option, it is also the most difficult if your beliefs about the topic are such.

2. Change your Actions

Another way of escaping from the guilt of your past actions is to ensure you would not repeat the same action again.

3. Change how you perceive your actions

Remember talking yourself to believing your perspective of an event? Taking benefit of that, you could also rationalize yourself into ensuring that you would not only never repeat the action, but also undertake activities in the future that would lessen the mental conflict.

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