Resolving Cognitive Dissonance

1/10/10: Cognitive dissonance is one of the most widely researched concepts in social psychology. Anytime you have held two inconsistent beliefs, or acted differently than you believed you should, you likely had some amount of emotional discomfort. This feeling is cognitive dissonance. To demonstrate ways to resolve or prevent this feelings we will use the following classic example:’, ‘Suppose you hold a belief that your physical health is very important, yet you also regularly indulge in eating unhealthy foods.

It is likely that when the inconsistency comes into mind, cognitive dissonance results, and we use various strategies to resolve it. The first set (1a, b, c) are ways we operate that keep the inconsistency in place, whereas the second set (2a, b) are ways to end it. The key is for our resolution strategies to be constructive.

1a. Minimize or Avoid
The strategy is used if we decided to say “who cares” and never explore the inconsistency, or simply avoid looking at it and divert our attention to something else. For some of the more complex dissonance producing situations, we may have no other choice than this, but it is also the most primitive.

1b. Rationalization
This strategy occurs when we would make excuses or justifications for the inconsistency. We might say things like “well I can’t help but overeat because I’m genetically predisposed to it” or “I make up for it in other ways like biking to work” or something else related to your specific circumstances.

1c. Acceptance
This strategy doesn’t try to avoid the inconsistency or justify it. Instead, we can just consciously accept that it exists, and deal with the feelings that it generates. In some forms of therapy, this would be described as holding the “tension of opposites”. Basically “I am like this, but I am also like this, and I can accept that.” So “I believe in being healthy, and I do often overeat unhealthy foods, and this fact is OK.”

2a. Change the Beliefs or Actions
This the most obvious, and in our situation would mean stop smoking, watch our eating, and become more active. It could also mean that we change how much we really value physical health or think of the other actions as “unhealthy”. This strategy is generally seen as more sophisticated than the first two.

2b. Integration
This is the most complex and often requires the most effort, but I believe it can be one of the healthiest for a many situations. This strategy is when we can find ways to actually integrate the two opposing beliefs or beliefs and actions. In our example it might mean assimilating this into a larger philosophy about how each of us is a collection of many unavoidable inconsistencies, but that it is important to attain balance and health in life. This would lead us to moderate our view on physical health and make efforts to curb some of the unhealthy behaviors as well. One example might be “I believe in being healthy but there are a lot of ways to understand what ‘healthy’ means. I think we should strive to eat healthy foods, but it can also be OK to make exceptions when our favorite foods are around and enjoy them in moderation.”

Next time you are experiencing some dissonance, think about how it might be resolved using all 5 of these perspectives and see if you can make some progress in your life simply by adopting a different resolution strategy.