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11 May 2020 , by moni

About cognitive dissonance and changing attitudes

I have been reading a book about cognitive psychology by Phillip Zimbardo and I found a very interesting article about cognitive dissonance that I thought would be nice to share with you. Hope you will find it helpful and find answers for some behaviours that you may find difficult to understand before.

Participating in distressing events that are in conflict with our beliefs, attitudes and values, may result in cognitive dissonance (‘dissonance’ means the lack of harmony), which refers to proactively adapting to a changed mental state. For example, people who do not give up smoking despite being aware of the health risks, or gamblers who do not stop playing after a series of losing, all apply cognitive dissonance, similar to those who engage in physically or emotionally challenging activities.

According to the cognitive dissonance theory, people are motivated because they want to avoid feelings of dissonance. That is, when they face cognitive dissonance, they then aim to minimise it by either modifying their behaviour or their cognition. In some cases, cognitive dissonance can be resolved by changing behaviour, for instance, if someone does not like their boss, they can just resign.

However, in other cases, when someone’s actions are more restricted such as by being in the Army, where one cannot just turn their back and leave, then there is only one option left, that is to change their attitudes. Therefore, the most likely thing to happen is that the person will rationalise the experience in the Army such as, “It might be very challenging now, but it makes you stronger!” or “Being part of the elite corps is worth the suffering!”

As a result, the dissonance will ease and the person will feel better. To put it simply, when cognition and action are in conflict, it results in cognitive dissonance. People would try to diminish this by changing their thinking, attitudes and values in order to make them consistent with their actions, rather than changing their behaviour. The reason behind this is that, people would rather rationalize their behaviour, because that is invisible to others, than appear foolish by changing their behaviour. Also, not reducing the dissonance would potentially affect their self-esteem.

Before moving on to the power of dissonance, let me mention some cultural differences. Previous studies have shown a cultural difference between individualistic and collectivist cultures (e.g. Bower, 1997a). Since, high self-esteem is not as important to people in collectivist countries such as Japan, as it is in the individualist North-America, people in the collectivists culture are less likely to change their attitudes in order to reduce the cognitive dissonance.

Turning now to the power of dissonance, despite the cultural differences, the theory of cognitive dissonance provides an explanation for behaviours such as why smokers rationalise smoking, or why people would invest time and energy into volunteer projects, and why they become strongly committed to their business. Simply put, they need to justify their actions. Moreover, cognitive dissonance also explains why people prefer positive and conformational information regarding their choices (e.g. after a recent purchase) while shifting their attention away from negative information that would promote cognitive dissonance (e.g. cheaper deals, faulty products).

The theory also helps to better understand seemingly inexplicable relationships such as why a woman would be attracted to a violent man. Accordingly, the dissonance is caused by why she stays with a man like him. Rigorous self-justification efforts to reduce the dissonance result in focusing on the violent partner’s positive attitudes, while underplaying the significance of abusive behaviour. Together with low self-esteem, she can even convince herself about deserving to be treated badly.

Subsequently, according to the theory of cognitive dissonance, people are attracted to people who have already caused them a great deal of voluntary suffering and distress. Unlike other approaches such as the reward theory of attraction, the theory of cognitive dissonance has also contributed to our understanding of behaviours related to superstitions or justification for hurting others, when we rationalize that our bad behaviour happened for a good reason.

However, the good news is that, the malfunctioning thinking patterns can easily be halted by being honest and admitting ‘I am sorry, I made a mistake.’

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