Cognitive Dissonance: Changing Behavior Effectively

Have you ever known you wanted to do something in your life, like quit a bad habit, drink more water, or lose weight?

“Caught in a tug-of-war between what we know is right and what we crave at the moment, our minds often become battlegrounds for conflicting desires.” This opening line captures the essence of cognitive dissonance, a psychological phenomenon that affects each of us, often without our awareness. It’s the silent struggle that ensues when our actions don’t line up with our beliefs, or when two of our beliefs are at odds with each other.

Have you ever committed to a New Year’s resolution, like improving your diet, only to find yourself reaching for a slice of cake just days later? Or have you ever bought something on impulse, despite knowing it was beyond your budget? These everyday examples reflect cognitive dissonance at work – the mental discomfort that arises from holding two contradictory beliefs or attitudes.

This psychological concept, first introduced by Leon Festinger in the 1950s, has far-reaching implications. It doesn’t just influence minor choices, like our food or shopping habits; it shapes our major life decisions and moral judgments. Understanding cognitive dissonance is crucial because it impacts not only our mental health but also our relationships, work performance, and overall well-being.

In this blog, we’ll explore the intricate dance of cognitive dissonance. We’ll delve into its definition, its presence in daily life, insights from research, its potential to drive change, and ways to manage and harness it for personal growth. But first, let’s start by unpacking what cognitive dissonance truly is and how it subtly orchestrates our decision-making process.

Understanding Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance occurs when our beliefs, ideals, or values clash with our actual behaviors, leading to psychological stress. This tension arises because humans have an inherent desire for internal consistency. When we act in a way that contradicts our beliefs or when we hold two conflicting beliefs, our mind urges us to reduce this dissonance.

For instance, consider a person who acknowledges the adverse health effects of smoking but continues to smoke. They enjoy smoking, yet are aware of its harmful consequences. This clash of belief and behavior is a classic example of cognitive dissonance, driving a need to resolve the conflict, perhaps by quitting smoking or rationalizing the behavior.

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 discomfort in the form of dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance in Everyday Life

In my own life, cognitive dissonance surfaces in seemingly simple decisions, like choosing between two similar products. Recently, I faced this while selecting a pair of running shoes. Despite both options being almost identical, I experienced significant indecision. Once I made a choice, the value of the unchosen pair seemed to diminish in my mind. This is known as the “post-decisional spread,” a phenomenon where we devalue rejected options to alleviate the discomfort caused by our decision.

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 behavior. The experimental group (who wrote about exercise) had stronger intentions and exercise behavior 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.

Research Insights on Cognitive Dissonance

Research in cognitive psychology offers fascinating insights into this phenomenon. A study by Chatzisarantis et al. (2008) examined individuals who viewed exercise as dull but also recognized its health benefits. Participants were asked to write about times they failed to exercise and then complete a survey on their exercise intentions and behaviors. Those who reflected on their inactivity displayed a stronger intention to exercise, suggesting that inducing cognitive dissonance can foster attitude changes.

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 believes that fast food is 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 behavior change towards healthier eating.

Another motivational factor may lie in detecting a discrepancy between one’s behavior and their values. For example, one may express to their friends that smoking is damaging and yet do it anyway. 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 behaviors. An explanation for this could be that they had yet to rationally think about the behavior change and how they would go about it, and once they did they felt they had more control.

The Potential for Positive Change

While cognitive dissonance can be uncomfortable, it has the potential to drive positive change. When people confront information that challenges their unhealthy beliefs – such as learning about the negative impacts of fast food – the resulting dissonance can motivate them to seek more information and possibly adopt healthier behaviors.

Additionally, recognizing a mismatch between one’s actions and values can catalyze change. For instance, a smoker who openly acknowledges the harms of smoking yet continues the habit may be motivated to quit when this discrepancy is highlighted.

Chatzisarantis et al. (2008) also found that experiencing cognitive dissonance can enhance individuals’ perceived control over their actions. This could be because confronting the need for change prompts a more rational and deliberate consideration of how to modify one’s behavior, leading to a heightened sense of self-efficacy.

Real Life Counselling Book Your Session Now CTA

What Happens After Our Behaviour Changes?

Once new behaviors are on the rise, especially when they have been goals for a long time, positive reinforcement of the individual and the behavior can reduce any corresponding dissonance. This will not only help form the new behavior 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 behaviors match our cognitions!

Sustaining Behavior Change

Once we embark on new behaviors, especially those that align with our long-term goals, positive reinforcement is crucial. This not only encourages the continuation of the new behavior but also helps in maintaining the change over time. Recognizing and rewarding progress reduces any residual dissonance and reinforces the new, more congruent behavior pattern.

Conclusion

In conclusion, cognitive dissonance, while initially a source of internal tension, can be a powerful motivator for self-reflection and behavioral change. By understanding and harnessing this psychological phenomenon, we can align our actions more closely with our values and beliefs, leading to a more harmonious and fulfilling life.

References

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