In psychology the term cognitive dissonance refers to psychological distress or internal tension that we perceive when a personal belief is challenged by new information incompatible or contradictory, or when our beliefs conflict with our behavior. When we perceive the incompatibility of two simultaneous ideas about the same aspect, we tend to ignore new information to reduce mental conflict. Or before a manifest incongruence we are motivated to look for new ideas that fit with our beliefs and attitudes to configure a certain internal coherence. The greater the psychic discomfort, the greater the desire to reduce cognitive dissonance .
The American psychologist Leon Festinger was the one who formulated this concept for the first time with the publication of his work  Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), where he explains that people have a strong need to ensure that our internal beliefs, attitudes and behaviors are coherent with each other. When the human being perceives an incoherence between his beliefs and his behavior, he strives to avoid this conflict so that it does not drag him into a lack of inner harmony. This theory became part of social psychology and has been used in different areas such as motivation, decision making, change of attitudes or group dynamics.
Practically all of us have experienced episodes of cognitive dissonance, that is, experience two incompatible ideas and challenge one of them (the one that most displeases us) with new information to our liking, or changing our behavior or trying to alter our environment. We tend to self-justify our decisions and before the possibility that they have been wrong or wrong, anxiety can lead us to stubbornly defend those decisions or acts. We do not tolerate well to handle two contradictory thoughts and we try to neutralize them with new ideas, although these are absurd, being able to reach self-deception . And by reducing internal incoherence, our psychological tension is also reduced, and by feeling better, the motivation to continue fighting against our internal conflicts is strengthened. A person educated in moral and peaceful values that is forced to go to war, to defend the inevitable enemy deaths will be motivated to include among his values other new ones that justify his conduct, such as the defense of the Homeland , its culture or its religion.
Classic example of internal conflicts
As our attitude is formed by both affective and cognitive components, we can also consider that the incoherence we feel ] Dissonance occurs when there is an internal conflict between our desires and our thoughts. The classic example is that of smokers. We all know that smoking harms health, can cause respiratory problems, chronic fatigue or cause cancer, including the possibility of dying. Why do smokers continue to do so despite knowing their harm? Faced with the contradiction of thinking " I want to be healthy " and " smoking hurts my health " , and before the great effort needed to stop smoking, instead of feeling bad because they keep smoking these people try to rationalize their contradictory thoughts and self-justify their addiction . They may have thoughts similar to these:
- What is the use of living a lot if you can not savor the pleasures of life, like the enjoyment of a cigarette after coffee.
- Quitting makes you fat because it makes us eat more, and it is not healthy either.
- There are too many dangerous situations for health: breathing polluted air, infectious diseases, accidents, …, and smoking is only a small part. The best thing is to enjoy the moment.
- There are many smokers who have lived long and without problems related to tobacco. The chances of getting cancer are not so high.
The person adapts his smoking behavior to his elaborate thoughts about it, and thus reduces his cognitive dissonance. Distort the information received by diverting attention from the tobacco-cancer relationship towards their more hedonistic desires to seek pleasure and avoid the excessive effort necessary to overcome the addiction.
Maybe, From a more positive point of view, cognitive dissonance may have evolved in our brain to help us change instinctive and uncritical automatic thoughts for more reasoned and logical ones, choosing between different options and thus stimulating our cognitive development. Perhaps it also serves to protect our individual vision of the world, or our sense of identity, or our motivation to achieve our vital goals. In this sense cognitive dissonance can have an adaptive value that commits us to action if we know how to manage it well if we learn to change negative thoughts for others that increase our motivation to overcome our discomfort. And also if we learn to detect our self-deception to make our mind more flexible.
Author : Iñaki Kabato (collaborator of our Blog)