Reducing Cognitive Dissonance

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about the theory of cognitive dissonance and strategies we can use to reduce the uncomfortable feelings associated with cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance

Have you ever done something that went against your beliefs in some way? Or did you start to believe something that conflicts with a long-standing belief of yours? If this has ever happened to you, you might recall that you felt a certain discomfort. When our behaviors and beliefs conflict or do not align in some way, we might feel cognitive dissonance, which is a sense of discomfort that arises when this happens. We generally try to avoid this feeling, which might mean changing some of our beliefs or behaviors. We'll talk about that soon, but for now let's talk a bit more about cognitive dissonance.

Leon Festinger

Leon Festinger was a social psychologist who produced some of the most influential work on cognitive dissonance. Festinger was interested in exploring how we maintain consistency in our thoughts and actions, and what happens if we don't maintain this consistency. Festinger's theory has a few important assumptions. First, Festinger realized that humans are aware when we have inconsistencies in our thoughts and behaviors. So, for example, if you believe that large cars are damaging to the environment but you own an SUV, you'll be aware of this when you're driving. There's an inconsistency between something you believe and something you're doing in this case.

Festinger then proposed that once we recognize we're experiencing this dissonance, we're going to want to do something about it. Basically, we'll want to resolve it. According to Festinger, it's highly unlikely that we'll just ignore this dissonance. So what do we do about it? Let's talk about ways of reducing cognitive dissonance.

Reducing Cognitive Dissonance

Festinger has a few ideas about how one might overcome cognitive dissonance. For one thing, we could change our beliefs. This is probably the easiest approach. Basically, if you believe one thing but are acting in another way, changing your belief system will alleviate the disconnect between thoughts and action. For example, if you change your beliefs about oversized cars being bad for the environment, then you won't experience dissonance when you're driving. But the problem with this approach to reducing dissonance is that our beliefs are pretty stable most of the time. So, while this might seem like the easiest approach to reducing dissonance, in practice it's not all that common. It's not that easy for us to simply change our beliefs.

A second approach to reducing dissonance is to change our actions. This means you simply won't do whatever behavior caused you the dissonance. So, just never drive your oversized car again. You might go and trade it in for a smaller model. But the problem with this approach is that we might simply learn to deal with feeling bad about our actions. This is especially true if we happen to benefit from this behavior in some way.

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