Apr 24, 2023

When the Mind Clashes - Understanding Cognitive Dissonance

In the realm of social psychology, cognitive dissonance refers to the emotional and psychological distress that arises when a person holds two or more conflicting beliefs, values, or ideas.

 In the realm of social psychology, cognitive dissonance refers to the emotional and psychological distress that arises when a person holds two or more conflicting beliefs, values, or ideas. This state of dissonance is experienced when there is a mismatch between a person's attitudes or behaviours and their beliefs about themselves or the world around them.

Consider, for instance, a person who strongly believes in the need for environmental conservation but regularly employs single-use plastics. Such an individual may experience cognitive dissonance, with feelings of guilt and discomfort emerging due to the stark contrast between their actions and beliefs.

Theory of Cognitive Dissonance 

Leon Festinger's intricate and multifaceted theory of cognitive dissonance is a widely recognized and undeniably influential model in the field of social psychology. According to Festinger's complex and multifarious theory, cognitive dissonance emerges when a person's beliefs or attitudes are paradoxically and inexplicably inconsistent with their actions or behaviours. This perplexing and enigmatic theory postulates that when individuals experience such internal incongruity and ambiguity, they undergo a palpable and profound sense of psychological discomfort or dissonance, which they endeavour to resolve through a plethora of idiosyncratic and intricate means.

Cognitive dissonance functions by generating a nebulous and elusive state of tension within the individual, which propels them to seek out various and diverse methods to reduce the discordance. Festinger's intricate and inscrutable theory proposes that people endeavour to mitigate and mollify the discomfort of cognitive dissonance through a multiplicity of complex and convoluted ways, such as by altering their beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours, by seeking out information that confirms their beliefs, or by minimizing the incongruity between their beliefs and actions.

An example of cognitive dissonance in operation is a person who smokes cigarettes despite acknowledging that smoking is deleterious to their health. In this complex and intricate scenario, the individual experiences dissonance between their belief that smoking is harmful and their behaviour of smoking. To reduce the dissonance, the individual may modify and alter their belief about the harmfulness of smoking, or they may rationalize their behaviour by convincing themselves that the health risks are overstated or that they are still in control of their health.

Another example of cognitive dissonance is the ubiquitous and pervasive phenomenon of buyer's remorse. When a person makes a substantial and consequential purchase, they may experience cognitive dissonance when they recognize that the purchase was costly and possibly unnecessary. To mitigate and allay the dissonance, the individual may persuade themselves that the purchase was worth the cost or that they required the item more than they initially realized.

Causes of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance, a psychological phenomenon that occurs when an individual experiences a discrepancy between their beliefs, behaviours, or attitudes, can arise from various factors. The resulting psychological discomfort or tension motivates individuals to resolve the inconsistency. Several common causes of cognitive dissonance include conflicting beliefs, behaviours, insufficient justification, dissonant information, and decision-making.

Conflicting beliefs, for instance, can result in cognitive dissonance when individuals hold two or more contradictory beliefs. Consider a person who strongly believes in honesty but finds themselves telling a lie; this can lead to cognitive dissonance. Similarly, conflicting behaviours, such as engaging in actions that conflict with an individual's beliefs or attitudes, can cause cognitive dissonance. A person who values physical health but engages in unhealthy eating habits may experience cognitive dissonance.

Moreover, cognitive dissonance can also occur when individuals engage in actions that go against their beliefs, but they do not have a sufficient justification for their actions. For instance, a person who cheats in an exam despite not believing in cheating may feel cognitive dissonance. Dissonant information can also cause cognitive dissonance when individuals receive information that contradicts their beliefs, attitudes, or values. For example, a person who denies the existence of climate change may experience cognitive dissonance when presented with scientific evidence of its existence.

Effects of Cognitive Dissonance 

The psychological phenomenon colloquially referred to as cognitive dissonance has the potential to evoke a plethora of effects on individuals, encompassing but not limited to stress, discomfort, and an acute sense of unease. Essentially, when individuals find themselves grappling with cognitive dissonance, they are besieged with psychological tension due to their concurrent holding of two or more conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours. Here, we shall expound on some of the multifaceted ways cognitive dissonance can manifest itself.

Commencing with stress and discomfort, these are two of the most prevalent effects that individuals may undergo when confronted with cognitive dissonance. In such instances, individuals may feel a sense of profound anxiety, guilt, or shame, as they grapple with the challenge of reconciling their opposing thoughts, beliefs, or behaviours.

To rectify their cognitive dissonance, individuals may resort to rationalization, which is a cognitive process of justifying their behaviour or beliefs. For instance, a person who continues to smoke despite being cognizant of the health risks may rationalize their behaviour by convincing themselves that smoking helps them relax.

Another prospective resolution for cognitive dissonance is for individuals to modify their attitudes or beliefs. Take, for instance, someone who previously believed climate change was a hoax but subsequently alters their stance after experiencing cognitive dissonance.

Decision-making is another area that cognitive dissonance can impinge upon. Individuals may have trouble when attempting to choose between multiple options that have both positive and negative aspects, causing them to doubt their ability to make a sound decision.

Finally, cognitive dissonance can also influence attitude formation. Individuals may develop attitudes based on their behaviour instead of their beliefs. For example, a person who volunteers for a political campaign may cultivate a positive attitude towards the candidate, even if they did not hold a strong opinion about them before.

Cognitive Dissonance and Society 

The notion of cognitive dissonance possesses a tremendous impact on society, bearing the potential to incite group polarization, groupthink, and other pernicious behaviours. Group polarization manifests when individuals with similar views congregate and their perspectives gradually intensify over time, culminating in an increasingly fragmented society. Groupthink, conversely, denotes the phenomenon where a group of people makes decisions without considering all available options, resulting in suboptimal decision-making.

It is of paramount importance to remain cognizant of cognitive dissonance in a societal context, given its potential for severe ramifications. Cognitive dissonance can contribute to the propagation of misinformation or perpetuation of stereotypes. Individuals may selectively seek information that buttresses their existing beliefs, dismissing evidence that contradicts their predispositions. This, in turn, can fuel the propagation of erroneous information, with particularly deleterious effects in fields such as public health or politics.

Moreover, cognitive dissonance can also sustain the perpetuation of prejudicial stereotypes. Individuals may harbour prejudiced beliefs that run afoul of their values of equality and fairness, engendering discomfort and cognitive dissonance. Rather than modifying their beliefs, they may rationalize their discriminatory views or actively seek out information that corroborates their biases. This can result in the perpetuation of deleterious stereotypes and contribute to the perpetuation of social injustice.

As we ruminate upon the intricacies of the human mind, we discover that cognitive dissonance, a psychological phenomenon that arises when an individual holds two conflicting beliefs or values, induces a state of discomfiture and strain. Such an incongruity in one's beliefs can have a profound impact on their behaviour, decision-making, and attitudes. Through recognition of cognitive dissonance and the development of coping mechanisms, individuals can improve their decision-making and foster more meaningful relationships with those around them.

Prasad Amore
Prasad Amore

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