Humans tend to seek consistency, particularly in attitudes, perceptions, and actions, with a balanced agreement among them. It is a normal feeling that all humans have experienced when one’s thoughts and actions clash. However, this presents an opportunity for growth or self-development, depending on the response which is also a reflection of an individual’s mental health (McLeod, 2018). The cognitive dissonance theory is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when one’s ideas, beliefs, values, or behaviors contradict each other, resulting in distress or discomfort leading people to take action to resolve the said contradiction.
The cognitive dissonance theory was coined by psychologist Leon Festinger in the mid-20th century. He suggested that people have an inner need to ensure consistency in their beliefs and behaviors (known as cognitive consistency principle), with conflicting beliefs resulting in disharmony. He argued that cognitive dissonance was an antecedent condition, leading to actions oriented toward dissonance reduction – a motivation similar to natural instincts such as hunger (McLeod, 2018). Cognitive dissonance can take on various forms and scenarios. It can be holding two contradictory beliefs, having thoughts or ideas that clash with a deeply held belief or performing an action that contradicts one’s values or beliefs. All these situations create a feeling of uncomfortableness and potentially distress as a person is thrown into a psychological state of contradiction and inconsistency.
Cognitive dissonance can be caused by three main factors of forced compliance behavior, decision making, and effort. Forced compliance behavior is when an individual is forced into an action publicly for something that they are not willing to do privately – resulting in dissonance in cognition. This can occur in a job setting or potentially observing certain laws or policies. Decision-making is the most common of cognitive dissonance scenarios. Often life choices present difficult choices, with neither alternative being perfect or a rational decision being the right choice over an ideological belief. People commonly manage this by employing mental maneuvers that justify the chosen alternative while assigning negativity to the rejected choice. Finally, effort dissonance occurs when an individual puts tremendous effort and resources into something, potentially achieving goals. Only then, having a change in attitude which create a dissonance of current beliefs and previous actions, which can also be characterized as regret (McLeod, 2018).
There are evident physiological and neural responses as a result of cognitive dissonance. In the brain, the most implicated region is the medial frontal cortex (pMFC), which commonly plays a role in survival instincts and avoiding dangerous situations. There is a causal link between pMFC activation during dissonance and attitude change that seeks to balance the inconsistency. Studies also found engagement of the insula and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The insula processes emotions and becomes activated as dissonance often leads to people being upset or angry at the moment. Meanwhile, the DLPFC is a cognitive control center that becomes active during dissonance to begin rationalizing an individual’s actions or beliefs to alleviate the feeling of discomfort (Buckley, 2015). People faced with choices that are associated with a stronger cognitive dissonance demonstrate a larger negative response in the frontocentral area similar to error-related negativity. The amplitude of the response correlates with the reevaluation of alternatives, also activating individual neural dynamics (long-range temporal correlations) of the frontocentral cortices (Colosio, 2017).
The degree of dissonance for people depends on several influential factors such as the value of the particular belief and consistency of personal beliefs and values. The strength of dissonance is measured by influences such as cognitions that are personal-oriented such as self-image or the importance of the cognitions that involve highly valued beliefs such as potentially religion or morality. The greater the level of the dissonance, the more pressure there is to avoid or relieve the feelings of discomfort (Chery, 2019). People commonly experience changes in attitudes and mental health as a result of disharmony. The emotional state is negatively compromised with individuals feeling anxiety, guilt, and shame as a result. This often causes people to hide their actions and beliefs from others, rationalize their choices continuously, choose to ignore vital information, and limit socialization. All of these aspects are highly detrimental to the well-being, emotional stability, and mental well-being of a person (Leonard, 2019).
Resolution of Cognitive Dissonance
The emotional impact and discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance push people to utilize various strategies to relieve it. In layman terms, this is often known as “explaining things away” or creating a mental justification that will once again create harmony between beliefs or actions. Most commonly, individuals seek to persuade or justify that there is no conflict. This includes providing reasons as to why a certain action is acceptable or seeking support or validation from others. People also tend to reject or avoid conflicting information by devaluing conflicting knowledge, limiting exposure to new information in what is known as confirmation bias. A more difficult but arguable the most effective approach to resolving dissonance is to reconcile the differences. By accepting the dissonance and being aware of how it occurred, a person can change behaviors to be consistent with beliefs or seriously consider one’s values to make the relationship between the conflicting aspects a consistent one (Leonard, 2019). Cognitive dissonance is not an inherently negative aspect. It can be used for personal growth. It can also aid in upholding mental health and happiness by offering satisfaction on life choices and justifying those choices that cannot be reversed. Resolving dissonance can help to prevent making bad choices and encourage good ones.
Buckley, T. (2015). What happens to the brain when we experience cognitive dissonance? A Mind, 26(6), 72. Web.
Cherry, K. (2019). Cognitive dissonance. Web.
Colosio, M., Shestakova, A., Nikulin, V. V., Blagovechtchenski, E., & Klucharev, V. (2017). Neural mechanisms of cognitive dissonance (revised): An EEG study. The Journal of Neuroscience, 37(20), 5074–5083. Web.
Leonard, J. (2019). Cognitive dissonance: What to know. Medical News Today. Web.
McLeod, S. (2018). Cognitive dissonance. Web.