What Is Cognitive Dissonance? Cognitive Dissonance In A Nutshell

The term cognitive dissonance was first described by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. Festinger and his colleagues paid people either $1 or $20 to engage in a boring task for an hour. The participants who were paid $1 evaluated the task as more enjoyable than those who were paid $20, which seems counterintuitive. Therefore, cognitive dissonance describes mental discomfort arising from holding two contradictory values, attitudes, perspectives, ideas, or beliefs. 

Understanding cognitive dissonance

In what would become a pioneering experiment, Festinger and his colleagues paid people either $1 or $20 to engage in a boring task for an hour. The participants who were paid $1 evaluated the task as more enjoyable than those who were paid $20, which seems counterintuitive. 

However, lower-paid participants rated the task as more enjoyable than higher-paid participants because of cognitive dissonance. The paltry $1 they received was not enough to warrant them lying about the task, so they effectively convinced themselves that it was enjoyable. On the other hand, those who were paid $20 believed the amount was enough to justify lying and did not experience cognitive dissonance.

Put more succinctly, the dissonance occurred between the cognition of the $1 group (they really did not want to lie) and their behavior (they nevertheless lied). To reconcile this disconnect, they changed their belief about the boring task by instead reporting that it was enjoyable.

Ultimately, Festinger demonstrated that people have a desire for consistency in their beliefs and behaviors – even if it is achieved in a non-rational way.

What causes cognitive dissonance?

Multiple studies have shown that cognitive dissonance is caused by three main factors.

1 – Forced compliance behavior 

When someone is publicly forced to do something they privately did not want to do, cognitive dissonance results. 

Since the behavior causing the disconnect occurred in the past and cannot be altered, dissonance needs to be reduced by the individual re-evaluating their beliefs. This is what happened to participants in the study described in the previous section.

2 – Decision making 

As a general rule, decision-making invites dissonance. The employee who receives a lucrative job offer to work overseas must weigh up the pros and cons of accepting the job or staying put nearer to friends and family. Whichever option is chosen, the act of making a decision forces the individual to accept that they’ll never get to enjoy the advantages of the unchosen alternative. What’s more, it forces them to accept the disadvantages of the chosen alternative. 

To reduce dissonance during decision-making, many people adopt a strategy called “spreading apart the alternatives”. This means they increase the attractiveness of the chosen alternative while decreasing the attractiveness of the rejected alternative.

3 – Effort 

Humans also tend to attach more value to goals or items considered the most difficult to achieve. This helps us avoid the dissonance that results when we expel a great deal of effort in achieving something that turns out to be a waste of time.

On the contrary, we may convince ourselves the effort was quite enjoyable or that we didn’t expend as much time or effort as originally thought. This method of reducing cognitive dissonance by reframing the experience as more interesting is called effort justification.

Common examples of cognitive dissonance

Here are three examples of cognitive dissonance that most may be able to relate to:

  1. Getting enough exercise – most people value their health and want to live for as long as possible. However, they may spend all day sitting at a desk and pay for a gym membership they never use. 
  2. Being productive at work – office employees who are not closely monitored may spend the majority of their workday watching YouTube videos or planning their next vacation. Most feel guilty about their lack of productivity but may justify non-work activities by proclaiming they’ve had a busy month.
  3. Picking up after the dog – most dog owners are responsible and take plastic bags with them on walks. However, consider a scenario where a dog decides to do its business on the one day the dog owner forgets the bags. The owner may look around to see if anyone noticed and then quickly vacate the area. At home, they feel guilty for their actions but ultimately rationalize it by convincing themselves that this will be the last time it happens.

Key takeaways:

  • Cognitive dissonance describes mental discomfort arising from holding two contradictory values, attitudes, perspectives, ideas, or beliefs. The term was first described by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, who conducted a series of pioneering experiments on the subject.
  • Cognitive dissonance is primarily caused by forced compliance behavior, decision making, and effort. In each case, disharmony between the beliefs and behaviors of the individual causes them to avoid discomfort in sometimes irrational ways.
  • Relatable examples of cognitive dissonance include getting enough exercise, being productive at work, and picking up after the dog.

Connected Business Concepts

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. The term convergent thinking was first described by American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford in 1950. The process of convergent thinking involves finding the single best solution to a problem or question amongst many possibilities. 
Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring multiple possible solutions to a problem. Divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. These ideas are generated and explored in a relatively short space of time. 
First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.
The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.
The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.
Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.
Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.
Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.
Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, defined design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Therefore, desirability, feasibility, and viability are balanced to solve critical problems.
The CATWOE analysis is a problem-solving strategy that asks businesses to look at an issue from six different perspectives. The CATWOE analysis is an in-depth and holistic approach to problem-solving because it enables businesses to consider all perspectives. This often forces management out of habitual ways of thinking that would otherwise hinder growth and profitability. Most importantly, the CATWOE analysis allows businesses to combine multiple perspectives into a single, unifying solution.

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