Have you ever felt torn between two strong ideals? For instance, let’s say that you’re doing well on your diet, sticking to your goals and staying on a routine. But you really want a cannoli. You deserve that cannoli. It doesn’t fit into your diet so you shouldn’t have it; but you’re going to enjoy it anyway.
That internal conflict is called Cognitive Dissonance, and it is the catalyst for self-justification.
When we have conflicts in our minds, we seek consistency in our beliefs.
Cognitive Dissonance is an internal conflict where two opposing attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors struggle for precedence. This conflict can cause tension and discomfort which can only be alleviated by the alteration of one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors in order to restore balance.
The Principal of Cognitive Consistency was theorized by Leon Festinger (1975) stating that people seek balance and consistency in our beliefs and attitudes, and will strain to find balance in any given situation where two conflicting cognitions are causing a rift.
From this theory spawned a new theory that would come to be known as the Cognitive Dissonance Theory; the powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can produce irrational and maladaptive behavior within individuals.
Festinger believed that we hold many strong beliefs or cognition’s about ourselves and the world. When these ideals clash, it causes turmoil and imbalance; a state known as cognitive dissonance. Because this sensation is unpleasant, we are inclined to alleviate or eliminate the conflict to once again achieve dissonance.
In the 1950’s, Leon developed this theory during his time spent infiltrating a cult that believed the world would end on December 21st. Their leader warned them that on this day, extraterrestrial invaders would reign down and wipe out any sign of human life. Her noble followers gave up all of their money and belongings as one last attempt to achieve salvation before the end. December 21st came and went and alas, the world had not ended. The lesser devoted followers realized that they’d been conned and dismissed all ties with the cult. But those who had sacrificed everything and fully devoted themselves to the cause celebrated; believing that their devotion is what saved the world.
The devoted followers used cognitive dissonance as a coping mechanism; believing their actions had saved them instead of coming to terms with the fact that they mindlessly gave away all of their possessions at the request of a mentally unstable cult leader.
Our dissonance fluctuates depending on the values that we attach to our beliefs.
Our innate nature calls for balance, and as humans we are sensitive to inconsistencies between beliefs and actions. Two factors affect the severity of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance that is attached to each of the beliefs. This will determine which of the beliefs will be altered in order to restore balance.
Dissonance tends to increase depending on the importance of the subject at hand, how strong of a conflict occurs between the two dissonant thoughts, and our inability to rationalize and resolve the conflict.
If a particular action has occurred that cannot be reversed, then we experience what is known as after-the-fact dissonance. Our beliefs on the matter have now been altered, and when faced with a similar situation in the future, we will act differently based on our dissonance. A good example of this would be culture shock. When visiting a foreign country, you are surrounded by those with different customs than you. At first you may feel conflicted, but then you assimilate to their culture. You will take this alteration of behavior home with you, and practice it in your everyday life.
The general strength of the dissonance can be aroused by a number of variables. If the cognition’s are personal, provoking conflict abo ut how you perceive yourself, the dissonance will be more intense. Basically, as a rule, the more importance that is giving to an ideal, the more conflict will be experienced when that ideal is challenged.
A highly controversial and famous case of cognitive dissonance is Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to transcend into woman-hood. Formerly Bruce Jenner, the pinnacle of male fitness and status felt that they were denying themselves of their true nature by remaining a man. Her physical identity strongly conflicted with her emotional, mental, and psychological identity.
To avoid questioning our beliefs, we may develop bias’s about them.
Because we are so devoted to our ideals and so sensitive to imbalance, it can be difficult for us to digest when faced with the reality that we could actually be wrong. To avoid this conflict, we may reject opposing ideas and arguments that challenge our beliefs so that we do not have to alter our way of thinking. This is how bias is born. To avoid bias, we must find a way to process the new information and adapt it to our pre-existing beliefs.
Unfortunately, dissonance is what we are going to encounter and experience throughout our lives.
Since avoidance is not an option, there are a few techniques that can help to reduce the dissonance so that we can move on with our lives.
1. Spreading Apart the Alternatives
When you make a decision, you cut yourself off from the opportunity of enjoying the benefits of the unchosen alternative, while committing yourself to accept the advantages and disadvantages of the one that you chose. You can alleviate the dissonance generated by this conflict by increasing the appeal of the chosen alternative, while decreasing the appeal of the unchosen.
For instance: you really loved two tops but you only had the money for one. Now you’re experiencing shoppers remorse and feel a bit torn. Well, that other shirt was yellow. And let’s be honest, yellow isn’t really your color. You’re better off.
2. Put in Effort to Make the Outcome Worth It
We tend to value items that we’ve had to work for more highly than items that were just given to us. Even if the experience was negative, we tend to alter our perception of the experience as positive because we are happy with the outcome.
For example: during finals week, you slept for maybe 3 hours in total, ate maybe 2 meals, and completely lost your sanity along the way. But you scored highly on all of your tests, making all of that excruciating effort worth it.
3. Change the Attitude
In order to restore balance between the two conflicting ideals, you need to alter your attitude towards one of the beliefs, behaviors, or attitude. This can be extremely difficult since our beliefs are deeply ingrained in us, but it is mandatory to restore balance.
For instance: You’re a firm law abiding citizen. But you’re also very late for work. You know you should wait for the traffic signal, but no cars are coming so you make that illegal right turn to cut back on time. You altered your strong belief in adhering to all traffic laws in order to make it to work on time.
4. Get More Information
Summer is just around the bend, and you want to be nice and tanned when it’s dress and shorts season. The quickest way to achieve this is by visiting a tanning salon, but you also don’t want to cause any long-term damage to your skin. Well, some new studies have come out indicating that perhaps the use of sunscreen is more highly carcinogenic than exposure to UV light. This new information makes you feel justified in visiting the tanning salon. By emphasizing the new information, you don’t feel guilty while fake & baking.
5. Reduce the Importance
Preparing for the future is absolutely important. But we also know that we can’t always count on it. Life isn’t guaranteed, and we need to enjoy it while we’re able. An individual who is struggling with these two conflicting ideals (goodness knows I do) may choose to indulge in life’s pleasures such as rich foods and naughty recreational activities rather than hold out to avoid complications later down the line. By relishing in the importance to live each day as your last, you are reducing the importance of preparing for the future.
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