Cognitive Dissonance: What Happens When Reality Trumps Perception

We hold many thoughts and beliefs about the world and ourselves. When two thoughts clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension. This tensions is defined as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced when holding two conflicting thoughts. It occurs in situations where a person is presented with facts that contradict that person’s self-image, attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This includes:

  • Holding two or more contradictory beliefs, thoughts, or values at the same time.
  • Performing an action that is contradictory to one’s values, beliefs or self-image.
  • Consuming new information that conflicts with existing beliefs or conclusions.

Here are a few situations that would cause cognitive dissonance:

  • If you are in a cult and you believe the world will end on a given date but it doesn’t.
  • If you believe government is solving inequality but find evidence that it isn’t.
  • You value your health but eat a donut.

The tension of cognitive dissonance increases with the following variables:

  • The importance of the subject at hand.
  • How significantly the two dissonant thoughts conflict.
  • Our inability to rationalize the conflict.

Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable.

People seek consistency between their thoughts and expectations and reality. We have a desire to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid contradiction (or dissonance).

An individual who experiences inconsistency (dissonance) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable. As a result, he is motivated to reduce this dissonance — as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to induce it in the first place.

It encourages change in thoughts or behaviors.

As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consistency. Because of this, people engage in “dissonance reduction” to bring their thoughts and actions in line with one another. This creation of uniformity allows for a lessening of the psychological tension and distress.

This motivation triggers an alteration in one of the conflicting thoughts, attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

However, people don’t always match their beliefs to the truth, as a rational thinker might expect. The powerful motivation to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational thoughts and behaviors. It can lead to a tendency to reject new information or ways of thinking that do not fit with pre-existing beliefs.

How we reduce cognitive dissonance

When the consistency of our thoughts or behaviors is challenged, we must change our thoughts or behaviors to reduce the dissonance. In practice, four strategies can be applied:

  • Change our behavior. This strategy presents challenges however, as it is often difficult for people to change well-learned behavioral responses (i.e. giving up smoking) or accept that they were wrong.
  • Justify our behavior by changing the conflicting thoughts or adding new thoughts.
  • Change our values or self-image or reduce or exaggerate their importance.
  • Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs or acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs.

To illustrate, let’s consider a scenario where a person has adopted the attitude that they will no longer eat unhealthy food, but eats a donut. Here, the four methods of reduction are:

  • Change the behavior: Don’t eat the donut.
  • Justify the behavior: “I’m allowed to cheat every once in a while” or “I’ll spend 30 extra minutes at the gym to work this off.”
  • Change values: “I don’t really need six pack abs” or “Live a little.”
  • Ignore or deny: “This donut is not high in fat” or “I found an article that says donuts are healthy.”

Changing behaviors or pre-existing beliefs is the hardest — physically and emotionally. We don’t like to second-guess our choices or conclusions, even if later they are proven wrong or unwise. By “second-guessing” ourselves, it makes us think that we may not be as wise or as right as we thought we were (even more cognitive dissonance).

Thus, the more common strategy is to justify, ignore or rationalize. Those who have heavily invested in a position may, when confronted with disconfirming evidence, go to greater lengths to justify their position.

The tells for cognitive dissonance

Once your actions and your self image get out of sync, the result is often some kind of rationalization. Here are a few ways you can tell if someone is experiencing cognitive dissonance and taking action to resolve it:

  • “Speechless”. When a person that is otherwise very vocal becomes temporarily tongue-tied.
  • Personal attacks. Making a personal attack without reason or argument.
  • Irrational explanations. Offering a wide variety of explanations for an observation.

When a generally rational person gives an irrational response to your rational argument, it probably means the argument was sound but it violated someone’s sense of identity.

Persuasion 101

Arguing on the basis of facts is mostly futile because:

  • Changing beliefs and behaviors is extremely hard.
  • There is always more information out there for people to justify ignoring your arguments and/or re-affirm their own.

Knowing that people don’t want to change beliefs or behaviors, the only other variable you can change is identity. Therefore, the strategy if someone disagrees because of cognitive dissonance is to change who that person believes they are. Once his self-image matches your argument, he is free to agree with you.

2016 presidential candidate has been quite effective with this strategy. Here’s what Scott Adams had to say about it:

“Trump isn’t trying to change your mind on the facts. He knows voters are in cognitive dissonance half the time or more. Trump is changing who we are, until our self-images match his argument.”

Trump is not changing peoples minds about the world —he rarely talks about specific policies — he’s changing their minds about who they are.

Once you change a person’s self-image, that person will act in a way that is consistent with the new self-image. The new thoughts are ideas are now in-line with their self-image, so there is no cognitive dissonance.

How cognitive dissonance can help you succeed

If you’ve read this far, cognitive dissonance probably sounds interesting at the least. But what are the implications? And how can you benefit from it? Below are a baker’s dozen or so applications and implications. I’ll cover them in more detail in future posts.

  • Changing unhealthy behaviors and forming new healthy habits
  • Identifying and changing our own false or irrational beliefs.
  • Becoming more happy by matching expectations and reality.
  • Understanding the rise of Donald Trump and the seemingly irrational system as a whole.
  • Selling and marketing effectively.

The Implications

  • People are irrational — at least some of the time.
  • When people associate with a point of view, they begin to lose objectivity.
  • Knowing what causes cognitive dissonance, and the steps people take to solve it, we can influence behaviors.
  • People can justify lies or other unethical behaviors with dissonance reducing strategies.
  • People stick to decisions that they’ve invested heavily in (like a career choice or large investment) even if they turn out to be wrong.
  • One can set “traps” by understanding what will cause cognitive dissonance and the actions people are likely to take to resolve it.

This is the first of a three part series on cognitive dissonance. Parts two and three will cover practical applications and implications.