Understanding Cognitive Dissonance

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Understanding Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is when the thoughts and emotions are not agreeing with their behavior / Photo by Alphaspirit via 123RF


In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a belief of a person clashes with new evidence perceived by that person. People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so when what you hold true is challenged or what you do doesn’t jibe with what you think, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance. The degree of dissonance that people could experience depends on a few different factors, including how highly they value a particular belief and the degree to which their beliefs are inconsistent.

Cognitive dissonance can occur in many areas of life, but it is particularly evident in situations where an individual’s behavior conflicts with beliefs that are integral to his or her self-identity. Cognitive dissonance can often have a powerful influence on an individual’s behaviors and actions. According to a post by Science Mag, they shared that the term cognitive dissonance was first used by Leon Festinger in order to label the incompatible belief and attitude by one person. They also mentioned that the person might be unaware of his/her dissonance however, the person might also be aware that there is a disagreement on his/her thoughts which results to an inconsistency on his/her decisions.

Leon Festinger first investigated the cognitive dissonance while he was observing a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members who are the particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for a cult when the flood did not happen. Festinger and his students assumed that cognitive dissonance was a universal phenomenon that people everywhere experiences dissonance when they act in ways that contradict their beliefs and values.

In 1997, social psychologists Steven Heine and Darrin Lehman made a startling discovery where they asked Canadian and Japanese participants to choose between two music CDs that they had rated earlier as nearly identical in desirability. After choosing a CD to take home, the participants rated both CDs a second time. Like Americans in earlier studies, the Canadian participants typically changed their opinions of the CDs. They emphasized the positive features of the chosen CD and the negative features of the rejected CD. They needed to convince themselves that they had chosen the better CD so as to eradicate any feelings of dissonance.

The results showed that the Japanese participants showed no evidence of dissonance. After choosing a CD, they continued to view both CDs as equally attractive and desirable. They apparently felt little need to justify the choice they made. Heine and Lehman’s discovery raised the real possibility that Festinger and his students had erred when they assumed that dissonance was universal. Researchers scrambled to design and conduct experiments, using American, Canadian, Japanese, and Korean participants. Their findings led to a deeper understanding of cognitive dissonance and the addition of an important new component of the theory.

How Cognitive Dissonance Affects Emotions

According to a web post by Thought Co., cognitive dissonance happens when the individual’s thoughts and emotions are not agreeing with their behavior. They are being uncomfortable and discomfort on what they did. The results reported in “Contributions from Research on Anger and Cognitive Dissonance to Understanding the Motivational Functions of Asymmetrical Frontal Brain Activity indicate that the occurrence of cognitive dissonance is associated with neural activity in the left frontal cortex, a brain structure that is also associated with the emotion of anger, moreover, functionally, anger motivates neural activity in the left frontal cortex.

The anterior cingulate cortex activity increases when errors occur and are being monitored as well as having behavioral conflicts with the self-concept as a form of higher-level thinking. A study was done to test the prediction that the left frontal cortex would have increased activity. University students had to write a paper depending on if they were assigned to a high-choice or low-choice condition. The low-choice condition required the student to write about supporting a 10% increase in tuition at their university. The point of this condition asked students to write in favor of tuition increase as if it was their choice and that it was completely voluntary. Meanwhile, high-choice condition participants showed a higher level of the left frontal cortex than the low-choice participants. Results have shown that the initial experience of dissonance can be apparent in the anterior cingulate cortex, then the left frontal cortex is activated, which also activates the approach motivational system to reduce anger.

Furthermore, cognitive dissonance also causes a phenomenon called “error justification”. Many times people invest time and energy into something that turned out to be a big mistake. This reality causes great dissonance, and thus motivation to explain what occurs in a different way. Rather than accepting failure, people tend to justify their effort by saying it was fun, it was an important experience, or brush it off altogether by saying they didn’t really try.


Cognitive dissonance is a universal phenomenon / Photo by Rancz Andrei via 123RF




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