In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when we have two beliefs that conflict, or our beliefs and actions don’t match, making us feel uncomfortable. The concept was originally described back in the 1950s by psychologist Leon Festinger. The degree of dissonance, i.e. that sense of being uncomfortable, increases with the number of inconsistent cognitions and the importance of those cognitions. Cognitions that threaten core beliefs about ourselves are likely to cause significant dissonance.
Festinger identified three reasons why we might reject a new idea/belief that conflicts with our existing beliefs:
- change might be difficult or involve loss
- we like the present behaviour, even if it may carry future costs
- change might not be possible.
We naturally strive for consistency; it’s how we make sense of ourselves and our relationship with the world. When there’s inconsistency, we’re motivated to take steps to reduce the sense of dissonance. We can reduce dissonance by removing dissonant cognitions, adding new consonant (consistent) cognitions, or increasing the importance of consonant cognitions.
How we respond
To reduce that discomfort, we tend to reject, rationalize, or avoid information that highlights that dissonance. That can mean rejecting solid, accurate information because it gives us the inner squirmies.
In politics, people who are loyal to a specific party or set of beliefs are likely to rationalize or dismiss information that weakens their party’s position. Trying to present them with information that shows why they’re wrong or they don’t know what they’re talking about is likely to increase cognitive dissonance, which makes them more likely to reject the new information.
In terms of COVID, people who are attached to their idea of freedom in non-masking may respond to information about the harm that COVID is doing by rationalizing that they’re unlikely to get COVID, that COVID is just a minor illness, or even that COVID isn’t actually real. This rationalization allows them to feel comfortable in hanging onto and demonstrating their belief that non-masking equals freedom.
Someone who smokes and knows that smoking can cause lung cancer and kill people may try to reduce that dissonance through stopping smoking, minimizing the likelihood that they will get cancer, or thinking about the positives that they believe they get from smoking.
When it comes to animal welfare, you might be like me and care about animal welfare, but do your best to pretend that the meat that you like to eat doesn’t actually come from animals. I don’t have a problem with meat consumption per se, as it happens in the animal kingdom and I think it’s a natural thing, but it makes me squirmy to think about the direct link between the cow going moo and the burger that ends up on my plate. I like to eat meat, so that cognitive dissonance-avoiding ostrich in the sand strategy works for me.
With something like climate change, we may agree that the environment is important, but when we choose to drive rather than take public transit, we may rationalize that our individual actions aren’t actually all that significant, so driving isn’t that big a deal.
What happens in the brain
Particular parts of the brain get worked up when we experience cognitive dissonance. These include the posterior medial frontal cortex (pMFC), which is involved in avoiding aversive outcomes, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is associated with cognitive control, and the insula, which processes emotions.
However, just because our brains are getting worked up doesn’t mean that we need to run in the direction they’re pointing to. We can choose to accept and sit with discomfort.
Why cognitive dissonance matters
It’s useful to know about this because the uncomfortable feeling when you’re faced with new information that contradicts your beliefs isn’t an indicator that the new information is fishy. If you can accept that the squirmy feeling comes from cognitive dissonance and is perfectly naturally, then you can let that feeling be and then move on to evaluating that information in other ways.
The danger lies in assuming that the squirmy feeling is your gut telling you the new information is wrong. The new information might point out a really important risk associated with your current behaviour, and you might really benefit from making changes. In that case, your gut is probably reacting to the possibility of change, which isn’t a great thing to base decisions on.
Can you think of instances when cognitive dissonance has shaped your own reactions?
- Harmon-Jones, E., & Mills, J. (2019). Introduction to Cognitive Dissonance Theory and an Overview of CurrentPerspectives on the Theory. In Cognitive Dissonance, Second Edition: Reexamining a Pivotal Theory in Psychology.
- Scientific American: What Happens to the Brain During Cognitive Dissonance?
- The Atlantic (2020, July 12): The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic
- The Decision Lab: Why is it so hard to change someone’s beliefs?
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.