Brain facts

What is the cognitive dissonance?

Unfortunately, my mental health is still very precarious and I have been forced to make decisions about my life that have not been easy to take. Having to think about what to do in my life after my PhD contract ends in August 2020 and knowing that by making a choice I would either renounce to a life in University research or start the long and difficult path of recovery from this not-so-happy PhD experience, I found myself experiencing consciously a cognitive dissonance between my believes and what the people that surround me are telling me. Therefore, in this post I would like to talk about the concept of cognitive dissonance and the strategies we use to solve it (have a look down here for a cartoon summarising the cognitive dissonance theory).

Cartoon summarising the cognitive dissonance theory. Modified from michaelolesky.com

At the base of this concept there is the assumption that everybody has the need of maintaining a coherence between the things we know (our opinions and believes) and our behaviour and the environment that surrounds us, especially when these two are in close relationship. The human need to keep a positive and coherent image of ourselves is a very powerful factor that drives and motivates our behaviour and decisions. Indeed, it is not always easy to keep a coherent image of ourselves, since in our everyday life we face situations that we can consider “cognitive challenges”. Therefore, when our believes, opinions and behaviours related to a certain situation are incongruent, we experience the cognitive dissonance. This causes an emotional discomfort that we are urged to remove in order to restore the balance.

One typical behaviour of the individual that is facing cognitive dissonance is the active avoidance of situations that would probably increase even more the dissonance. But how can we actually solve it?

Experiencing cognitive dissonance allows us to restore a balance and to re-order thoughts and emotions every time we experience a moment of disequilibrium or incoherence that undermines our wellbeing and provokes doubts and sufferance. To restore the equilibrium, we need to modify one of the incongruent conditions, so that they can be coherent again. Festinger (1957), a well-known social psychologist that studied cognitive dissonance, identified three modalities that people use to decrease the incongruence between conditions:

  • by changing our behaviour, when the dissonance is caused by an incongruent behaviour and/or an assumption on the environment, the easiest and fastest strategy is to modify the behaviour or the assumption and align it with the environment;
  • by producing a change in the environment, a way more complicated strategy, since it is more difficult to have such a control on the environment that surrounds us;
  • by modifying our cognitive world, we can decrease the dissonance by changing opinion and/or behaviour, searching for evidences in favour of the incoherent behaviour, like a smoker that, knowing that smoking is a bad habit, keeps on telling to himself that smoking is pleasurable or that the health risks are not so worrying as others want them to believe;

This cognitive dissonance theory is considered an important psychological theory for two reasons: with this theory, Festinger helped to move past the dominium of behaviourism (that considered a matter of study only the behaviours that could be observed, therefore ignoring the cognitive and emotional processes) that was dominating psychology in those years; the strength of Festinger’s theory relies on the fact that everybody experiences cognitive dissonance in our daily lives. All of us have experienced, or will experience, an incongruent situation where we cannot find a balance between our opinions and our behaviours or the environment. However, knowing how the cognitive dissonance drives us in our behaviour can be helpful to adopt better strategies and avoid unpleasant consequences.

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