Have you ever known you wanted to do something in your life, like quit a bad habit, drink more water or lose weight?
If so, you are likely aware of how difficult these things can be to implement. Often our thoughts and desires conflict with our actual behaviours. Did you know that experiencing cognitive dissonance may help these thoughts and behaviours come into alignment?
Cognitive dissonance is a phenomenon in which someone holds varying or contradictory beliefs which creates psychological tension as well as an imbalance. Often, the individual feels the need to alleviate this conflict by changing one of their views to align with the other. For example, an individual who wants to stop a behaviour that they believe is harmful to their health, such as smoking, but also greatly enjoys cigarettes. These contradictory beliefs can cause cognitive dissonance to arise, which creates a discomfort that has the potential to motivate the inner conflict to be resolved.
Cognitive Dissonance in My Life
I can be quite indecisive, especially when it comes to buying decisions. Just last week I was deciding between two pairs of (very similar) running shoes to purchase. Everyone was telling me I couldn’t go wrong either way, but I was unable to make up my mind. After some time, I just decided on one, and after that happened, the value of the rejected shoes decreased dramatically. I was convincing myself that the shoes I bought were way better than the other ones, and so was everyone around me! This shift, called the post-decisional spread, is an interesting phenomenon to reduce any felt discomfort in the form of dissonance.
Cognitive Dissonance from a Research Perspective
A study done by Chatzisarantis et al. (2008) worked with participants who believed that exercise was boring while also holding the view that lack of exercise has harmful outcomes. They had some participants write about a time they intended to exercise but did not follow through, while others wrote about an unrelated, neutral topic. Following this, participants completed a questionnaire to measure intentions to exercise as well as behaviour. The experimental group (who wrote about exercise) had stronger intentions and exercise behaviour than those writing about a neutral topic. This gives rise to the notion that creating an unwelcoming state of cognitive dissonance in an individual can lead to attitude change.
Can Cognitive Dissonance Lead to Change?
Although the feeling of discomfort may present as uncomfortable, it can lead to progressive changes in our lives. For example, if someone believed that fast food was healthy eating, letting them know the information regarding the negative effects may create this state of cognitive dissonance, pushing them to become more informed and possibly make a behaviour change towards healthier eating.
Another motivational factor may lie in detecting a discrepancy between one’s behaviour and their values. For example, one may express to their friends that smoking is damaging and yet do it anyways. This may be happening at the conscious or subconscious level, but pointing it out may highlight the discrepancy and be the motivating factor to change.
Chatzisarantis et al. (2008) also found that participants induced to feel cognitive dissonance experienced an increase in their perceived ability to control their behaviours. An explanation for this could be that they had yet to rationally think about the behaviour change and how they would actually go about it, and once they did they felt they had more control.
What Happens After Our Behaviour Changes?
Once new behaviours are on the rise, especially when they had been goals for a long time, positive reinforcement of the individual and the behaviour can reduce any corresponding dissonance. This will not only help form the new behaviour but also help the individual stick to it over time, maintaining the new life change!
So, although cognitive dissonance can create tension within ourselves, in various situations this tension can be used as a motivator to reevaluate our goals and values, and check in to ensure our behaviours match our cognitions!
Chatzisarantis, N. L. D., Hagger, M. S., & Wang, J. C. K. (2008). An Experimental Test of Cognitive Dissonance Theory in the Domain of Physical Exercise. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20(1), 97–115. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200701601482