Think back to a time where you had to do something you did not fully want to do… perhaps going to your partner’s favorite restaurant simply because it was easy. What about doing something you knew you shouldn’t have been doing… such as watching the next episode of the show you and your friends promised to watch together, ordering truffle fries after your newfound health kick, or procrastinating at work? If this kind of decision making felt conflicting or frustrating, you have likely experienced cognitive dissonance. The experience of cognitive dissonance appears everywhere in daily life. So, welcome to the club.
A Look Into Cognitive Dissonance
One of the most universal examples of dissonance occurs in music when two notes clash together in a way that sounds harsh, rough, or disharmonious. Researchers have found that this effect is due to the anatomy of the ear during auditory intake and even infants as young as 2-months old prefer harmonious over dissonant music.
This type of stimulus clash foregrounds the psychological application of this phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. However, unlike external sounds creating auditory dissonance, American Psychologist Leon Festinger claims that one’s internal thoughts are responsible for cognitive dissonance.
More specifically, the theory of cognitive dissonance is a well-established motivational theory in social psychology. According to Festinger (1975), cognitive dissonance refers to the way people feel uncomfortable when experiencing two conflicting beliefs and behaviors, values, or desires.
People attempt to favor one belief over the other in hopes of reducing the amount of dissonance, tension, or frustration felt. This conflict of beliefs is very similar to the aforementioned dissonance found in music, and is just like what motivates people to turn off harsh music, Festinger claims that cognitive dissonance creates pressure to internally reject one of the beliefs.
The Cognitive Dissonance Catch
Recent research has demonstrated that cognitive dissonance tends to arise most frequently in decision making that has potentially negative consequences—especially in regard to one’s self concept and overall mental health. This may be why it seems easier to help friends and family make a decision, but when it comes to the individual experiencing it, decision making can frequently feel paralyzing. Decision making can also be an open door for confirmation bias or self-blame, for instance, if an individual falls dissatisfied with their final choice.
However, the biggest catch to cognitive dissonance is that it acts quickly, often without us noticing. The fast and stealthy nature of it tends to sway an individual to choose the belief that benefits them temporarily, as opposed to the alternative that would make them the happiest in the long run.
A culmination of poor decision making due to cognitive dissonance leaves room for an individual to become emotionally dysregulated, which tends to occur in dissonance overload. It can also lead to what is referred to as the induced compliance paradigm, or a form of dissonance that makes a person feel as if they are making choices that are not consistent with their attitudes, beliefs, or roles in life. Check out Dr. Balestrieri’s piece here on emotional regulation skills if you find yourself in need of some tips.
Nevertheless, although cognitive dissonance certainly applies to tough decisions that take weeks to decide on, the most common and detrimental form occurs at the unconscious level. Therefore, aiming for a cognitive dissonance reduction is not as simple as turning off a harsh tune, especially considering that you may not even be consciously aware that you are hearing it.
Once you break it down, cognitive dissonance seems to present more challenges than typically acknowledged. However, if most of the distress is evoked due to the unconscious nature of cognitive dissonance, then familiarizing yourself with the concept seems to be a good starting point for better attending to the judgements and decisions we tend to make on a daily basis.
The following strategies can be very helpful at alleviating cognitive dissonance in relationships of any nature, such as platonic, parental, professional, or romantic.
Reflect on Your Values
Reflecting on your values and the ones you regard as the most important is a wonderful place to start working on your cognitive dissonance. Some research has hinted that re-affirming your values may be effective at reducing the effects of cognitive dissonance, and although we tend to hold our values very close to us, it can be surprisingly challenging to sit down and write them down. Reaffirming values also can decrease the change of experiencing forced compliance, or being made to feel as if some level of authority is persuading you to violate your better judgement, values, attitudes, and beliefs.
Further, because dissonance tends to favor the short-term solution more times than not, making a physical list may be very beneficial to visualize what will benefit your long-term mental health and wellbeing.
As in any relationship, especially romantic ones, a big challenge seems to be retaining one’s sense of self while simultaneously being flexible enough to meet your partner’s needs. One may find themselves reluctantly making excuses for their partner here and there, but since humans tend to be motivated by cognitive consistency, this pattern can become very habitual very quickly. Unfortunately, this can sometimes result in a person ignoring red flags and finding themself in abusive relationships.
Thus, if one is more attentive to their own values, what they want in the long run, and how they rationalize judgements, they will be better equipped to reduce their dissonance in a healthy way.
Aim to Be More Mindful
It is important to note that reflecting on your values is only worth as much as how well you enforce them. This may seem hard in the beginning, since our actions become quite habitual overtime. In fact, the unconscious nature of cognitive dissonance seems to render this type of processing in the realm of automatic cognition.
Automatic cognition is what allows us to walk down the stairs, brush our teeth, or drive without fully thinking about the action we are engaged in. However, if you have ever misplaced your keys, or walked into a room forgetting what you needed, you have experienced the downside of automatic cognition and may be in some need of mindfulness.
The first component to mindfulness is the practice of directing your attention to the present moment. In everyday life, this would look like being more consciously aware of when you feel dissonance, so that if and when it arises, you may be more capable of taking a deep breath, regrouping, thinking about all of your options, and making a final decision based on your most important long term values.
The second key to mindfulness is to non-judgment. For example, if you do catch yourself experiencing dissonance, recognize that this is normal and try to not let your ego hold you back from living the life you want to live.
Make More Objective Decisions
Lastly, even with value setting and practicing mindfulness, there may be some situations in which the dissonance is too overwhelming. If you find yourself in this kind of decision making paralysis, it can be extremely helpful to consider what you would recommend to a friend if they were going through your circumstances.
It is important to keep in mind that cognitive dissonance is the most present in situations that are important to one’s self concept. In other words, if you take the perspective of a third party outsider, the self becomes one step removed from the situation, leaving much room for more objective, rational, and level headed decision making. Ruling out the decision as if it was for a friend leads to more objective appraisals, breaking the habitual and self threatening nature of cognitive dissonance.