Cognitive Dissonance: A Theory That Can Help You Stop Destructive Behavior
In 1954, our planet was threatened. According to Dorothy Martin, a Chicago homemaker, a massive flood was about to submerge everything man-made and kill the entire human race. But there was still hope for a small group of people called, the Seekers. A rare prophecy, unknown to anyone but Dorothy, stated that beings from the distant planet Clarion (a.k.a. aliens) would pick the true believers at midnight on December 17, 1954, with a flying saucer and take them to safety.
While the above didn’t happen – I mean, we’re still here – the dynamics in the room that night were really intriguing. At 12:10 a.m., when the flying saucer failed to arrive, the Seekers, started to worry. Then, at 4:45 a.m. when it was kind of obvious that the planet will be spared, to give his followers a new direction in life, Dorothy stated that he just received a new “message” from the outside realm stating that thanks to their efforts and dedication, the planet was saved. Now, they had to tell everyone what they’ve done.
Eventually, Martin’s followers abandoned him. However, that didn’t stop him. He continued to preach about the beings from Clarion.1
But why? Why this person despite the obvious facts wasn’t able to accept the truth – that such thing will not happen and these Clarion folks aren’t real?
Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist, also the person who infiltrated the gathering mentioned above, was able to give a name to this strange condition we all experience – cognitive dissonance.2
What Is Cognitive Dissonance?
In simple words, cognitive dissonance can be defined as tension. A feeling of discomfort triggered when new facts are presented to us that clash with what we already believe about ourselves and about the world. Or in other words, a lack of correlation between your beliefs, values, opinion, and someone else’s view (or evidence).
Let me give you an example:
Let’s say you studied hard for a test. You checked all the boxes and you also gave extra comments to the open-ended questions. Or in other words, “You nailed it,” Naturally, you’d expect a high score – probably an A.
To your amazement, however, you see a poor score when the teacher reveals the results. This immediately interferes with your perception of your efforts. “I studied hard. I correctly answered the questions, I should have an A,” is what you think. But that’s not what the facts show.
To resolve this inner discomfort, instead of acknowledging the score on your paper and probably consider that you didn’t actually know it all, you start to think that the teacher made a mistake.
The above is an example state of when a person is experiencing cognitive dissonance.
We can’t hold two opposing thoughts in our heads about something. So, we do all in our power to remove the friction and bring peace to our minds:
We say that the other person is stupid when he rejects or invitation.
We blame outside circumstances for our failures – the traffic when we’re late for work, or, the GPS for giving us wrong directions.
We’re about to sign the resignation paper if our boss says that our report was poorly written.
We fiercely defend our opinion on Twitter when someone does not agree with us.
We continue to smoke despite what everyone on the planet says about smoking.
Or in other words, to avoid feeling an inner tension, we’d rather die than admit that we’re wrong.
However, that’s not the worst thing about cognitive dissonance. It’s this:
When we know that a particular action will cause discomfort, we avoid it. That’s why we don’t start a business, try to learn something new, or apply to speak to an event – we’re afraid of what others might say. If they boo us, this will directly contradict the perception we have of ourselves – that we’re smart and outgoing. Thus, we prefer to stay at home and sit comfortably while watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones, The Witcher, or whatever.
Why Is Important to Understand The Cognitive Dissonance Theory?
I’m relatively young but I’ve been around long enough to know that people don’t want to hear the truth.
If your friend works a shitty job, telling them that their lack of skills is the main reason they are still in the same position after several years won’t make you a good friend. Quite the opposite, they’ll probably hate you and scratch your name from their wedding party.
That’s why the old cliche “the truth hurts” exists.
Understanding the state of cognitive dissonance will not only help you grow as a person, but will also aid you in becoming a better friend and colleague.
Start accepting feedback without experiencing mental breakdown: When you accept the fact that you’re not perfect, you’ll finally see feedback as non-threatening. And when someone makes a comment about your efforts, instead of going home and drinking until you pass out, you will understand their point of view and actually consider it.
Take a different approach when giving feedback to others: If you’re non-believer, you can’t say to your friend who’s fanatic Catholic that there’s no such thing as religion – this will cause them to experience cognitive dissonance. If it’s true, this will mean that your friend has been living this whole time in a lie. And no one will admit that. They’ll most probably defend the existence of God and argue with you while smashing your head with a crucifix. Instead, you should lay down your opinion but don’t go into extremes.
Spot destructive behavior and self-sabotaging thoughts: If you’re a world-class procrastinator – i.e. you play video games, you care a lot about what famous people do, you watch all the trendy shows, first – you’ll never admit to yourself that this behavior is bad. To avoid dissonance, you convince your mind that these “activities” are worth it by saying stuff like: “I need time for myself because I’m tired. These activities make me feel good. They’re not harming me.” But once you understand how this undermines your existence, you can finally make a positive change.
What You Can Do to Reduce Dissonance and Make It Work In Your Favour?
If you smoke cigarettes, you can stop smoking by either changing your behavior or by changing your beliefs about smoking – i.e. stop smoking (behavior) or accepting the fact that smoking can literally kill you (belief).
Unfortunately, it’s really hard to convince a smoker to do any of the above. Tobacco lovers usually think like this: “Smoking is considered bad for the health, yes, I know. But I also know that I have a 92-year-old uncle who is still alive and still smoking.”
In this case, to avoid cognitive dissonance, this nagging feeling of discomfort, the person is tailoring his beliefs to fit his behavior. Sadly, this person is doing it to reinforce the self-sabotaging act of smoking. But there’s a way to make it work the other way around and encourage positive behavior.
Be open-minded: Being open-minded is a very broad term but in essence, is the willingness to consider new ideas. If you’re stuck in your own narrative (the opposite of being open-minded), you won’t accept new things, and you’ll constantly argue with others. The best way to become more tolerant of new ideas is to try new things and to speak with different people.
Acknowledge: The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. You can’t do any meaningful progress if you first don’t admit to yourself that you have a problem. In the case of smoking, it will be admitting you’re powerless over smoking and either seeking professional help or doing one of the below.
Change the narrative: Say someone offers you a smoke. When people are trying to quit, they’ll usually say, “I’m trying to quit.” But that’s a wrong approach. In their mind, they still believe that they are a smoker – there’s still dissonance inside the person’s mind. The correct approach will be to say, “I’m not a smoker.” This second statement means that they don’t identify themselves as someone who smokes. And what a non-smoker does? He doesn’t smoke. Thus, there won’t be tension created.
Change the behavior: Quitting cigarettes is easy to say, but extremely difficult to do. Especially if you’ve been smoking for years. That’s why changing your thoughts as mentioned above is of great importance. Once you convince yourself, in your head, that smoking is bad, only then you can actually stop doing it.
Add new behavior: Probably the hardest thing when trying to quit smoking is figuring out what to do with your hands. I know because I’m an ex-smoker. The habit of holding a cigarette is so strong that you just can’t find a place for your hands. That’s why a lot of folks gain weight after they quit – they start to consume food to give their hands something to do. To adjust for the change, you can chew gum and get one of those Fidget Cubes to keep your hands busy.
Some additional actionable steps:
Publicly announce your desires: If you announce publicly something you wouldn’t normally do, this will create dissonance between your normal behavior and what’s now expected from you. For example, if you are a well-known procrastinator, stating that you’ll learn Chinese directly contradicts your previous couch-potato lifestyle. But since you stated publicly your desires to obtain new knowledge, to avoid publicly being mocked, you’ll basically force yourself to get up, go to classes, and learn.3
Write affirmations: Many of us hold negative thoughts about our set of skills or the lack of them. When trying to learn something new, a lot of people might say, “I’m not good at learning new languages; I can’t understand the new information; I’m a bad student.” This immediately creates tension between the act of learning and their inner thoughts. That’s why a lot of people quit. They can’t bare these contradicting notions and they choose the easier path – they quit to avoid cognitive dissonance. Affirmations can help. By focusing on the positives, you can convince your mind that what you’re doing is working so you can keep going. Instead of the negatives above, you can document your progress by writing the positives. Things like: “I’m getting better at understanding new information; Yesterday I learned 10 new words; I’m a good student.” Yes, this might sound preachy, but it will help you remove the inner tension so you can keep learning.
Document your progress: Achieving something worthwhile always takes time. To our disappointment, the progress seems so small and insignificant that we can’t justify our efforts. Thus, yet again, cognitive dissonance is formed. “I’ve been studying so hard and I still can’t form a sentence in Chinese,” you might say. At this point, to resolve the tension you either quit to restore the balance in your head or you reframe it by saying something along the lines: “I’m so much better than 3 months ago.” To keep this narrative going, in addition to the above, you can track your daily progress – write down what you achieved today. That’s why journaling is so commonly mentioned by self-help gurus.
Diversion: Avoiding the state of cognitive dissonance can help you advance in life and grow as a person but it can also reinforce destructive behavior. As mentioned, if you’re a smoker, you’ll frame the act of smoking as something “not so bad” and keep doing it. Or in other words, you need to be very careful about what thoughts you let live in your mind.
Some Closing Thoughts
Our minds are always trying to keep an inner balance by avoiding contradicting thoughts. This means that no matter how bad your behavior is, you’ll always reframe it to suit your current behavior.
That’s why convicted criminals, when asked about whether or not they’re guilty, always say that they’ve been framed. Also, that’s the reason you keep doing stupid things like smoking, drinking, wasting time on social media, etc. You don’t think these things are bad because you’ve convinced your mind that what you’re doing is ok.
In closing, I’d say that understanding cognitive dissonance per se is not enough. Take some time to spot the catastrophic acts and thoughts that are hurting your well-being. Then, spin them in your favor.
Staying vigilant and open-minded is crucial.
Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Yes, this really did happen. The Seekers, also called The Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, truly believed that folks from Clarion will come and rescue them.
In Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance study, he concluded that when people are being paid more ($20) to do boring tasks they admit that these tasks are dull. They admit that because they can justify their efforts and therefore no dissonance is created. On the other hand, participants who were paid less ($1), can’t justify their efforts for the money. That’s why they say the task is fun – there’s dissonance. Watch part 1 and part 2 of the study