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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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