What Is Cognitive Dissonance? Psychology Treatments That Help

By Julia Thomas

Updated May 24, 2019

Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Cognitive dissonance is a phrase that's becoming more well-known, but when you experience it yourself it may be hard to recognize. The first thing you might notice is that you feel a sense of mental tension, and you're not sure where it's coming from. Fortunately, when it comes to cognitive dissonance, psychology has some answers. Here's an overview of cognitive dissonance and some treatments that help relieve the psychological stress that comes with this uncomfortable state.

What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

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So, what is a good cognitive dissonance psychology definition? It helps to start with the meanings of the two words in the phrase. Cognitive, of course, refers to mental activity. It can mean thinking, learning, perceiving, believing, or intuiting. Dissonance is a less familiar word. Dissonance is a word that's sometimes used in music to mean two or more musical notes that are played together but lack harmony and so create a sense of tension.

The psychological term puts those two meanings together. Cognitive dissonance is when two thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors are so out of harmony that they make you feel psychologically uncomfortable. This discomfort can influence your thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors as you try to resolve the discord within your mind.

Festinger's Cognitive Dissonance Theory

To go deeper into the meaning, let's take a look at the original theory of cognitive dissonance. While this type of mental situation has been happening for as long as humans have been capable of thought, the theory was not devised until 1957. It all started when a social psychologist named Leon Festinger observed something unusual.

Festinger had read about a cult that believed the world would soon end in a cataclysmic flood. He wondered what the cult members would think when it didn't. So, he and some colleagues pretended to believe and managed to be accepted into the group. Their goal was to observe what would happen next.

What Festinger and the others discovered was incredible. The people who were less involved and committed to the beliefs of the group simply told themselves and others that they'd made a mistake and learned a lesson. However, the staunchest believers had a different response. They didn't accept that their beliefs had been proven false. In fact, they began to work harder to gain new members for their cult. This squared with the cognitive dissonance theory Festinger had been working on.

Later, he conducted experiments to find out more about this type of phenomenon. In one experiment, people were asked to lie and tell others that a job was interesting. Those who were paid $20 for this lie still believed that the task was boring after they lied about it. But the people who only received $1 for the lie suddenly changed the way they thought about the task. Not only did they lie about it, but they began to believe the lie.

This result was a clear confirmation of Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory. The $1 liars did, in fact, change their thinking to relieve the mental tension created when their actions didn't sync with their thoughts. This shift was important to them because they behaved in a way that went against their beliefs with very little reward or rational reason for doing so.

Festinger suggested that people have a drive for their attitudes and behaviors to be consistent. When their thoughts and behaviors are inconsistent, they change something so they can get back into mental harmony.

Examples Of Cognitive Dissonance

Once you understand what cognitive dissonance is, you may be able to discern examples all around you and even in your own life. Here are two of the most common examples of this phenomenon.

Smoking

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Engaging in unhealthy habits usually causes cognitive dissonance. Smoking is a prime example of this. If you know smoking causes cancer but you choose to smoke, that behavior is inconsistent with that thought.

You may tell yourself several different stories to resolve this mental conflict. You might focus on someone you know who smoked for decades and never got sick, rather than noticing how many people died from lung cancer.

You might say to yourself that everyone dies eventually, even if they only do things that are considered healthy. That sounds reasonable enough that you accept it and keep smoking. Yet, you don't go around tempting fate in other ways. So, the dissonance is still there, even if you don't recognize it.

Exercise

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Cognitive dissonance isn't always harmful. It can also happen when you're making positive changes. Consider what happens when you decide to start exercising. Beginning a fitness routine can be grueling, especially if you've been sedentary for years. It's unfamiliar, uncomfortable, tiring, time-consuming, and maybe even painful.

You have one thought that says you don't want to go through all that and another one that says it's good for you. To reduce your mental anguish, you may convince yourself that you like it even though it's physically uncomfortable. If you're successful in changing your fitness habits, this inner conflict is only temporary. The more you stick with the plan, the fitter you become. It becomes more familiar and less physically uncomfortable. You experience the rewards of good health. These new thoughts align well with the fitness behaviors you've adopted.

Treatments For Cognitive Dissonance

When your thoughts and behaviors don't match, you can take one of two approaches to reduce or eliminate the cognitive dissonance. You can either change your beliefs or behavior. The only way to change either is to choose different thoughts. For this reason, cognitive behavioral therapy is very useful for resolving cognitive dissonance.

Standard Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy relies on the assumption that thoughts create feelings, and feelings influence behavior. So, during CBT, your therapist helps you work through your thoughts to help you make behavioral changes you want to make.

You talk about what is distressing to you. Then, with the help of your counselor, you examine the thoughts related to your feelings about the situation in question. Now, you take a closer look at those thoughts and determine whether they're accurate and rational. If not, you can decide to change them.

When your thoughts and behaviors conflict, you can examine that disparity and decide what to do about it. You might not have to do anything except recognize it. Just understanding what's happening to you may make you feel much better.

So, in the exercise example above, you might decide that "yes, I'm feeling cognitive dissonance, but I still want to stay on my fitness plan. These feelings are temporary anyway, and the benefits far outweigh the psychological discomfort." That recognition is important, though. Without it, you might try to resolve the disharmony by quitting your program or self-sabotaging in some other way.

Standard cognitive behavioral therapy can also encourage you to find new information that forms a bridge between the two incompatible elements. Your therapist can help you examine which of the behaviors and thoughts is most important to you. When you focus on what's important, the dissonance diminishes.

Rational Living Therapy

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Rational Living Therapy (RLT) is a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy. It's based on the fact that it's your thoughts about people and things that influences your feelings, not the people and things themselves. Like standard cognitive behavioral therapy, then, it focuses on changing unhelpful thoughts.

An RLT counselor can help you understand that feelings don't always reflect the truth. They use the Socratic Method and may also speed up the process through hypnotherapy. They can guide you in discovering that you can control your feelings by changing your thoughts. The therapist does this by asking you questions to help you discover things about your situations, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that you've never realized before. With this newfound knowledge, you're ready to start making the necessary changes to improve your mental harmony.

Getting Help For Cognitive Dissonance

A defining characteristic of cognitive dissonance is that it's psychologically distressing. Yet, its damage can go way beyond feelings. When it affects your behavior, it can alter the course of your entire life. If you notice that you're feeling mental tension or doing things you don't understand, you may find help by talking to a therapist.

You may already know where the dissonance lies but not how to resolve it. A counselor can help you do it and teach you how to do it better on your own in the future. You might not know exactly what's wrong with your feelings or behavior. That's okay. Through therapy, you can discover what's causing the tension and plan to address it.

You can talk to a counselor in your local area or find a therapist online through BetterHelp. Through the therapeutic process, you can take control of your thoughts, impact your feelings, and change the behaviors that are causing you such mental anguish. Then, you can live a life that makes sense to you and increases your sense of mental harmony and health.


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