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.
- Healthy Lifestyle vs. Sedentary Behavior: Individuals who value a healthy lifestyle but spend most of their day sitting at a desk without exercising experience cognitive dissonance. To reduce discomfort, they may downplay the importance of exercise or make plans to start exercising in the future.
- Productivity vs. Procrastination: Employees who value productivity but engage in procrastination at work experience cognitive dissonance. They may justify their non-work activities by convincing themselves that they deserve a break or that they work better under pressure.
- Environmental Concern vs. Unearthly Lifestyle: People who express concern for the environment but engage in wasteful or environmentally harmful habits face cognitive dissonance. To resolve this conflict, they may rationalize their behavior by downplaying the impact of their actions.
- Healthy Eating vs. Indulgence: Individuals who prioritize healthy eating but occasionally indulge in unhealthy foods experience cognitive dissonance. They may justify their indulgence by considering it a reward or treating it as an exception to their overall healthy diet.
- Financial Responsibility vs. Impulsive Spending: People who value financial responsibility but engage in impulsive spending experience cognitive dissonance. To resolve this, they may rationalize their spending as a necessary treat or convince themselves they will budget better in the future.
- Ethical Values vs. Unethical Behavior: Individuals who hold strong ethical values but engage in unethical actions may experience cognitive dissonance. To reduce discomfort, they may justify their behavior as necessary or deny its unethical nature.
- Parental Expectations vs. Personal Aspirations: Young adults who feel pressured to pursue specific career paths based on parental expectations may experience cognitive dissonance. They may rationalize their decisions by believing they can find happiness and success in their parents’ chosen path.
- Environmental Awareness vs. Energy Consumption: People who are aware of environmental issues but consume excessive energy may experience cognitive dissonance. To reduce discomfort, they may focus on small eco-friendly actions they take or downplay the impact of their energy consumption.
- Social Responsibility vs. Inaction: Individuals who express concern about social issues but fail to take any meaningful action to address them can experience cognitive dissonance. They may rationalize their inaction by believing that they are too busy or that their individual efforts won’t make a significant difference.
- Safety Consciousness vs. Risky Behavior: People who emphasize safety and risk avoidance but engage in risky activities like extreme sports may experience cognitive dissonance. They might justify their behavior by arguing that they take all necessary precautions or that the thrill is worth the risk.
- Relationship Commitment vs. Infidelity: Individuals in committed relationships who engage in infidelity may experience cognitive dissonance. To ease their discomfort, they might convince themselves that their actions don’t truly harm their partner or that their partner deserves it.
- Education Importance vs. Skipping Classes: Students who value the importance of education but frequently skip classes experience cognitive dissonance. They may rationalize their absences by thinking they can catch up later or that the class material isn’t essential.
- Charitable Intentions vs. Selfishness: People who claim to have charitable intentions but rarely donate time or money to causes may experience cognitive dissonance. They may justify their inaction by believing they contribute in other ways or that they can’t afford to give right now.
- Time Management vs. Procrastination: Individuals who prioritize effective time management but consistently procrastinate on tasks experience cognitive dissonance. They may rationalize their procrastination by convincing themselves that they work better under pressure or that they have plenty of time.
- Gender Equality Support vs. Gender-Biased Actions: Those who publicly support gender equality but exhibit gender-biased behaviors may experience cognitive dissonance. They might rationalize their actions by saying they were unaware of their bias or that their behavior was unintentional.
- Health Consciousness vs. Smoking: People who are health-conscious but continue to smoke cigarettes may experience cognitive dissonance. They may rationalize their smoking by thinking that they’ll quit eventually or that it’s their only source of stress relief.
- Honesty Values vs. Dishonesty: Individuals who value honesty but occasionally lie or deceive others may experience cognitive dissonance. They might justify their dishonesty by believing it’s for a greater good or that everyone lies sometimes.
- Parental Guidance vs. Peer Pressure: Teenagers who receive parental guidance against certain behaviors but succumb to peer pressure and engage in those behaviors may experience cognitive dissonance. They might rationalize their actions by asserting that they had to fit in or that their parents don’t understand their generation.
- 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 Thinking Frameworks