Cognitive Dissonance

Perhaps you have heard or read the term cognitive dissonance? Psychologist Leon Festinger used cognitive dissonance as a way to explain his theory of what people experience when they simultaneously hold two conflicting beliefs. Festinger observed that humans strive to achieve balance and consistency in our lives; when that balance seems awry, we create justifications for why we believe one thing and end up doing the opposite.

For example, you may not like to lie, but imagine someone you care about asking you to lie for them. Even though you believe that lying is wrong, you find yourself doing it, perhaps inexplicably at first. Now there is inconsistency between your beliefs and your behaviors. In order to rid yourself of the perception of inconsistency and the discomfort it brings, you either choose to believe the lie you are telling or you convince yourself that by lying you are helping your friend. This rationalizes the act, obviating your discomfort. It’s genius.

Shahram Heshmat, Ph.D., an associate professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield with a Ph.D. in Managerial Economics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, suggests that “Cognitive dissonance results from a tension between a desire and a belief.” It is a struggle you experience – often through guilt. And of course, no one want to feel guilty; it is an uncomfortable feeling and to relieve the pressure we must convince ourselves that what we are doing (or did) is justifiable.

Additionally, Dr. Heshmat states that “our reasoning is biased by our desires and motivations.” Again, we do not want to feel bad about the actions or decisions that we made; therefore, we must find a way to relieve our discomfort without having to change our behavior.

Steven Stosny, Ph.D., the founder of CompassionPower in suburban Washington, DC. and author of recent book, Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain under Any Kind of Stress, describes that “Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort of self-image colliding with reality. Such collisions are inevitable, as self-image tends to be based on values – what is most important to you – while behavior is routinely directed at short-term comfort, pleasure, and utilitarian goals.”

Cognitive dissonance can also be understood in the context of a romantic partner relationship. When, inevitably, your partner makes you feel bad, you may react by accusing them of being wrong or inconsiderate—otherwise why would they hurt you? However, when you are having trouble understanding someone’s behavior or actions, it is up to you to challenge yourself to understand them. Some see it as putting yourself in the other’s shoes and critically trying to understand the other person. The challenge is to reach genuine empathy, which will relieve cognitive dissonance.

Of course it would be much easier to just say “there is something wrong with my partner”, rather than trying to figure out or sympathize with why your partner hurt you or why your partner is behaving in a hurtful manner. Dr. Stosny explains that “Instead of asking what is wrong with your partner, ask, what in me is making it hard to be compassionate right now. The answer will almost always be guilt (I’ve hurt or neglected you), shame (I feel too inadequate), or fear (I’m afraid of your response).”


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