We have many priorities and attitudes—seen and unseen. Priorities and attitudes are not constant; they shift with context. An all-important goal is pushed to the back when other events intrude. Our minds are primed and we violate commitments, or temporarily adjust priorities. We are constantly at war within ourselves, facing conflicting desires, and incompatible goals. These inner conflicts is what Leon Festinger referred to as cognitive dissonance.
What is Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable state of inner conflict. We strive to be whole. We create a simplified narrative that unifies desires, behaviors and actions. The human being, however, is not unified. We have trillions of neurons communicating in vast networks of connections. Our organism is constantly at work processing information and directing behavior, drawing on past, present, and predictions of the future.
Information is dynamic, constantly changing. Messages fit some frameworks of thought but clash with others. Our conscious attention is a limited resources, only capable of focusing on one element of this process at a time. Our thoughts focus on what is most salient at the moment. As attention shifts, we notice incongruencies and this creates psychological tension.
Leon Festinger, the brilliant social psychologist behind the theory of cognitive dissonance, explained that “becoming aware of conflicts between our beliefs and our actions, or between two simultaneously coexisting beliefs, violates the natural human striving for mental harmony, or consonance” (Banji and Greenwald, 2016, page 59).
Unconscious Brain Processes
Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald explain that some functions of our brains are strangers to our conscious minds. “We implicitly know something or feel a certain way, and often these thoughts and feelings are reflected in our actions too—the difference being that we can’t always explain these actions, and they are at times completely at odds with our conscious intentions” (page 55).
Leon Festinger theorizes the consequences of our reaction to cognitive dissonance are enormous. Impacting relationships, politics and the world. He explains application of cognitive dissonance applies “to such diverse social problems as the cognitive biases of political partisans, the way people in the legal system can blind themselves to evidence that they have the wrong suspect, the “convenient” distortions of memory, and to self-justifying rationalizations that fuel family rifts and international wars” (2009, location 96).
Elements Susceptible to Conflict
Several cognitive elements may be in conflict:
- Logical propositions may conflict with beliefs
- Behavior may conflict with moral self-concepts
- Emotions may conflict with rational cognitions (Zastrow, 2017).
Why Try to Solve Cognitive Dissonance?
Phillip Zimbardo, the professor behind that conducted the infamous Stanford prisoner study, wrote “People will go to remarkable lengths to bring discrepant beliefs and behavior into some kind of functional coherence” (2008).
Leon Festinger puts it this way, “because dissonance is uncomfortable, people try to reduce it by changing one or both cognitions to make them more consonant with each other” (2009, location 61). Basically, when we consciously or unconsciously feel tension because of an inner conflict, we go to “remarkable lengths” to resolve the conflict.
Change the Belief
Paul Dolan Ph.D., a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science, warns that when faced with cognitive dissonance, “it is much simpler to bring your attitudes in line with your behavior than vice versa” (2015, location 1735).
Instead of noticing that a behavior is errant, out of alignment with proclaimed values, we justify the behavior, excusing it as an appropriate deviation. And thus we bring our dissonance back into comfortable alignment. Of course, the easiest path is not always the most adaptive response. Often the behavior needs reigning in and adjusted.
Festinger adds that when evidence arises that disputes fundamental beliefs, “the individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view” (2009, location 145).
Change the Behavior
When behavior and values are at odds, often the most adaptive response is to adjust the behavior. If I believe I am a good worker, but my performance is lacking, I step up the effort, bringing the behavior in line with my belief.
The change relieves the dissonance. Of course, this is over-simplistic in writing. In practice, we deal with dynamic beliefs, shifting contexts, and varied behaviors. Living in alignment requires constant attention and continuous adjustments.
Banji and Greenwald explain that “dissociation is the occurrence, in one and the same mind, of mutually inconsistent ideas that remain isolated from one another” (2016, page 57).
When we spot the contradiction, the opposing ideas create tension, we masterfully resolve the tension by keeping opposing beliefs in their own corners, surrounded by complimenting contexts. We believe we are a wonderful husband and father while we are galivanting off with the woman from the office; we proudly partake in communion, donate to the church but believe in evolution.
Banji and Greenwald point out that “for any person sharp enough to spot this contradiction in themselves, the discovery can pose a real conflict” (page 56). So, for many, its just easier to allow the conflicting ideas to co-exist in their own context without forcing a confrontation that needs to be resolved by abandoning one or both of the ideas.
Self-Reflection and Cognitive Dissonance
Without careful self-reflection, we slip into deceptions to resolve cognitive dissonance between actions and beliefs. We justify or ignore unhealthy behaviors even when those actions obviously conflict with self-perceptions.
If we honestly and closely examined ourselves, we may discover we lack compassion, fairness, or honesty. Transformation of character insists we acknowledge conduct leading us off course—and make corrections. Only with a clear view can we realign our trajectory with cherished intentions. As we act in accordance with the person we desire to be, we relieve the cognitive dissonance between beliefs and behaviors, freeing mental energy for more creative responses.
The cognitive dissonance (inner conflicts) sap energy. We can’t trust our unconscious mind to resolve these conflicts. To avoid hurtful mind games, we need a focused approach that continuously checks beliefs for correctness and behaviors against virtues. Through conscious effort, we can eliminate the dissonance and become the person we want to be.
Banaji, M. R., Greenwald, A. G. (2016). Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Bantam; Reprint edition
Dolan, P. (2015). Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. Plume; Illustrated edition
Festinger, L., Riecken, H., Schachter, S. (2009) When Prophecy Fails. Martino Fine Books.
Zastrow, C. (2017). The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. The Psychological Record, 19(3), 391-399.
Zimbardo, P. (2008). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Random House Trade Paperbacks; Illustrated edition