One interesting psychological concept is cognitive dissonance. This theory was pioneered nearly 60 years ago by Leon Festinger, and it has been one of the most influential theories of social psychology. According to Harmon-Jones and Mills (2019), Festinger posited that two cognitions can be considered relevant or irrelevant. The ones that are irrelevant to each other are dissonant, while the ones that follow are consonant. Therefore, cognitive dissonance can be explained as a psychological phenomenon that occurs when an individual has two related but opposite cognitions, ideas, or thoughts. In contrast, when ideas flow logically from each other, the term is cognitive consonance. Unfortunately, cognitive dissonance is accompanied by mental discomfort, which could lead to changes in attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs to restore consonance, consistency, and coherence. Studies show that brain scans of people with cognitive dissonance have visible electrophysiological signals in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the area that controls mistakes and conflicts.
Cognitive dissonance, as from the name, does not have physical manifestations since it is felt internally. That implies it is challenging for one to identify external signals that show a person is experiencing cognitive dissonance. According to Festinger, people have adopted defense mechanisms to deal with the discomfort associated with cognitive dissonance. These defense mechanisms are classified into avoiding, delegitimizing, and restricting impact. People who use avoiding mechanisms often ignore or avoid situations or places that remind them of dissonance. They could also distract themselves with tasks that take the issues off their minds or discourage others from talking about them. Trivialization entails discrediting a person, situation, event, or group that brings the dissonance to attention. It also means downplaying the importance of dissonant experiences, attitudes, or behaviors (Cancino Montecinos, 2020). A person might claim that the group is not credible or the situation is biased, meaning it should not be trusted to highlight dissonance. Limiting impact involves belittling the importance of cognitive dissonance. That means a person could claim the experience is okay. For example, Festinger’s experiment shows the participants given $1 to tell lies about the peg-turning task claimed the experience was fun, which limited the impact, unlike those paid $20. From these mechanisms, it is safe to deduce that cognitive dissonance implicates different real-world settings since people want to avoid feeling the differences between attitudes and behaviors, particularly when decision-making, forced compliance, and selected information are involved.
Implications of Cognitive Dissonance and Real-Life
According to Yahya and Sukmayadi (2020), cognitive dissonance has great implications for decision-making, selective exposure to information, and forced compliance. Decision-making is one area that is significantly impacted by cognitive dissonance since it is felt when deciding. Unfortunately, it is one area that is a part of daily life in which one is expected to make a challenging decision from two similar and appealing options. With each option are consequences that follow, likely to cause dissonance. For example, a person may be stuck in a job they do not enjoy but offers stability and great benefits. Therefore, they are stuck with the options of either quitting and looking for a job they enjoy but one that does not offer similar stability or being stuck in the same job they do not enjoy. These two options offer dissonance since none covers everything one needs. That could explain why Borah et al. (2020) assert that cognitive dissonance leads to impaired decision-making. Therefore, it is important to reduce cognitive dissonance to improve decision-making. The four ways Borah et al. (2020) enlist include revoking the decision, reducing the importance of the decision, decreasing the positivity of the option not chosen, and increasing the positive outlook of the selected alternative. Interestingly, personality altering can help reduce cognitive dissonance. Studies show that extroverted people were likely to feel the adverse effects of cognitive dissonance and were less likely to change their minds. In contrast, introverts had a higher probability of changing their attitude and experiencing cognitive dissonance. According to Festinger, contrary opinions held by other people have a chance of reducing dissonance since they may inspire a person to change their decisions or attitudes. Decision-making is ubiquitous, meaning it is exercised in everything in the real world, even in the smallest issues, such as whether to take black or white coffee, with sugar or without.
Another area that is highly impacted by cognitive dissonance is selective exposure to information. This implication is closely tied to confirmation bias. Confirmation bias involves people looking for, processing, or interpreting information that is in line with the existing beliefs. Festinger posited that people selected information that supported their existing beliefs instead of contrary ones (Yahya & Sukmayadi, 2020). Confirmation bias can be used to reduce cognitive dissonance since it offers information that reinforces the selected alternative. In the example above on being stuck in a job a person does not enjoy when they choose to quit it, the information they would have gathered would have reinforced the decision. An example of the selected information found would be that quitting their job would make them happier and less anxious. Therefore, such information would agree with their decision, narrowing the conflicting feelings and attitudes they would have after quitting. Selected information correlates with dissonance since the information they have been exposed to agrees with their beliefs and does not contrast. In the political arena, people seek selected information that confirms their political beliefs because contrary information makes them uncomfortable and anxious. Such selected information could lead to skewed interpretations that could explain the spread of propaganda and motivated reasoning. Therefore, selected information demonstrates how it affects people’s understanding of information in the real world. It is what advertisers use to market products and services.
Forced compliance is a demand from a higher authoritative power that makes other people perform acts that go against their better judgment. That means that an individual has been forced to act against their cognition, promoting cognitive dissonance. For example, when the management forces its staff to lie to regulatory officers in a routine check-up. The management could force the employees by offering rewards or threatening them with the loss of their jobs. The behavioral and cognitive motives of these employees would be contradictory, increasing cognitive dissonance. Yahya and Sukmayadi (2020) report that forced compliance’s main objective involves changing a person’s attitude through authority and persuasion, which shows how it implicates people with authority. Studies show that applying excessive force might have temporary changes, meaning it is vital for people in authority to consider the amount of pressure they apply. Smaller rewards and pressure might produce more results and changes in attitudes and behaviors. Notably, emotional expression and distancing are ways to reduce cognitive dissonance brought about by forced compliance. Emotional expression involves getting in touch with one’s feelings, which could include accepting the presence of dissonance. Once acceptance has been made, it is easy to look for ways to address it. Distancing is crucial because it weakens the attachment felt to cognitive dissonance. Examples of distancing behaviors include crossing fingers when telling lies and reflecting on behaviors. When an authoritative figure forces compliance, one can distance oneself by realizing that the answers they give are not their own, and in case of any consequences, the figure in authority will deal with it. Therefore, emotional expression involves introspection and reflection, which is crucial in identifying the causes of cognitive dissonance and addressing them.
Importance of Understanding Cognitive Dissonance
It is obvious that people want to have confidence in their decisions, which explains why the avoidance mechanisms mentioned above have been fundamental, particularly with cognitive dissonance. That is why it is important to understand cognitive dissonance, especially with the explained implications associated with it. Comprehension of this concept can help reduce anxiety and stress that are associated with the effects of cognitive dissonance. Besides, it ensures that as decisions are being made, they are informed and more meaningful. Without comprehension, people can use cognitive dissonance to support destructive behaviors or attitudes. Such people will continue to look for information that supports their destruction and not want to make the required changes. For example, they will rationalize stealing as a means of provision. They could also claim that the people from whom they steal deserve it or have more than enough. A lack of self-awareness will also lead to cognitive dissonance and impaired decision-making. That means that cognitive dissonance is a part of human decision-making, but with its knowledge, it does not have to have adverse effects. One can turn it to make positive changes towards better and healthier thought patterns. It also offers a learning opportunity, especially when people actively seek information that makes them confront their cognitive dissonance. Knowledge expands the understanding of the world, which can help the thinking process to be more adaptable and flexible. According to Cooper (2019), cognitive dissonance can impact mental well-being positively, particularly in CBT. It causes the client to have uncomfortable conversations about different issues caused by the differences in their beliefs and behaviors.
In conclusion, cognitive dissonance is an interesting psychological concept that social psychologists have explored over time. It explains the discord that happens when a person has different and contradictory values/beliefs and actions. Leon Festinger developed it in 1957, asserting that people will always seek ways to bridge contradicting values and actions as they seek consistency. That is why they apply defense mechanisms such as avoidance, trivialization, and delegitimization. Notably, cognitive dissonance implicates different aspects of the real world, such as decision-making, selected information, and forced compliance. Decision-making is an everyday activity that leads to cognitive dissonance. Changes in attitudes and behaviors affect decision-making and can reduce or increase it. Selected information ties closely to confirmation bias, which reduces cognitive dissonance since it offers information that supports existing beliefs. On the other hand, forced compliance involves a higher authoritative figure coercing a subordinate into behaviors that are contrary to their beliefs and values. These implications affect different areas, such as politics and education. Understanding cognitive dissonance is crucial because it offers learning growth and can be used to make impactful decisions. Most importantly, it leads to adaptive and flexible thinking patterns, especially with expanded knowledge that is not based on confirmation biases.
Borah, Tulika & Gogoi, Sampreety & Dutta, Ankita. (2020). Cognitive dissonance: its role in decision making. ADVANCE RESEARCH JOURNAL OF SOCIAL SCIENCE. 11. 69-72. http://dx.doi.org/10.15740/HAS/ARJSS/11.2/69-72
Cancino Montecinos, S. (2020). New perspectives on cognitive dissonance theory (Doctoral dissertation, Department of Psychology, Stockholm University). http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:su:diva-179559
Cooper, J. (2019). Cognitive dissonance: Where we’ve been and where we’re going. International Review of Social Psychology, 32(1), 7. https://doi.org/10.5334/irsp.277
Harmon-Jones, E., & Mills, J. (2019). An introduction to cognitive dissonance theory and an overview of current perspectives on the theory.
Yahya, A. H., & Sukmayadi, V. (2020). A review of cognitive dissonance theory and its relevance to current social issues. MIMBAR: Jurnal Sosial Dan Pembangunan, 36(2), 480-488. http://dx.doi.org/10.29313/mimbar.v36i2.6652