What Is Cognitive Dissonance? Psychology Treatments That Help

Updated December 12, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever felt a sense of mental tension, but you weren't sure where it was coming from? This could be cognitive dissonance, a psychological phenomenon that may be hard to recognize when you experience it. Fortunately, the field of psychology can shed some light on this uncomfortable cognitive state. This article will present an overview of cognitive dissonance and some online therapy treatments that help relieve its psychological stress.

We Change Our Feelings By Changing Our Thoughts

What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

So how does psychology define cognitive dissonance? It helps to look at the meanings of each word in the term. "Cognitive" refers to mental activity. It can mean thinking, learning, perceiving, believing, or intuiting. You may recognize "dissonance" as a word that is sometimes used in music to mean two or more musical notes which lack harmony and create a sense of tension when played together.

Therefore, cognitive dissonance is when two cognitions, attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors are so out of harmony that they make you feel psychologically uncomfortable.

Who Identified Cognitive Dissonance?

Let's look at the original social psychology theory of cognitive dissonance, created in 1957 by social psychologist Leon Festinger. Festinger read about a religious cult that believed the world would soon end in a cataclysmic flood. As an expert in social psychology, he wondered what the cult would think when the world didn't end, So, he and some social psychology colleagues went undercover and managed to gain acceptance into the group. Their goal was to observe what would happen next.

What Festinger and his colleagues discovered was psychologically groundbreaking. The people who were less committed to the beliefs of the group simply accepted that they had 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 recruits for their cult.

Later, Festinger conducted social psychology laboratory experiments to find out more about this type of phenomenon. These were peer-reviewed studies that have been revisited many times since in other research projects. In one scenario, people were asked to lie and tell others that a boring 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 changed their thoughts and became convinced the task was actually interesting. Not only did they lie about it, but they began to believe the lie.

This result clearly illustrates what came to be known as Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory in the field of social psychology. In these peer-reviewed studies, the $20 liars had no reason to change their thinking, as the amount they were paid rewarded them amply enough for acting in a way that contradicted their beliefs, resolving any mental tension. However, the $1 liars had to change their thinking to relieve the mental tension created when their actions didn't sync with their thoughts, because there was no real reward for doing so. 

Festinger proposed that people have a drive for their attitudes and behaviors to be consistent. When their attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors are inconsistent, they change something so they can get back into mental harmony. Festinger's peer-reviewed studies, published by the Stanford University Press, laid the groundwork for extensive research into cognitive dissonance. In fact, the studies were so important that the Stanford University Press still offers this volume.

What Are Examples Of Cognitive Dissonance?

Once you understand what cognitive dissonance is, you will be able to find examples all around you, including things you may have thought about and done. Engaging in unhealthy habits generally causes cognitive dissonance. Smoking tobacco a prime example. If you know smoking causes cancer but you choose to smoke, your behavior is inconsistent with your knowledge. To resolve this mental conflict, you will likely tell yourself a story. You might focus, for example, on someone you know who smoked for decades and never got sick rather than let yourself think about how many people have died from lung cancer.

Or you might say to yourself that everyone dies eventually, even if they only do things that are healthy. That may sound reasonable enough that you accept it and keep smoking. Yet, you might avoid tempting fate in other ways. So, when an informed person smokes, cognitive dissonance is usually present.

Cognitive dissonance isn't always harmful. It can also occur 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 may be unfamiliar, uncomfortable, tiring, time consuming, and even painful.

One voice in your head might say that you don't want to feel the pain and inconvenience of exercise, and another one may insist that it's good for you. To reduce your mental conflict, you may convince yourself that you like exercising 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 may become. The exercise can become more familiar and less physically uncomfortable. You might experience the rewards of good health. These new attitudes and thoughts align well with the fitness behaviors you've now adopted. Your health conditions improve along with your mental comfort.

Are There Treatments For Cognitive Dissonance?

When your attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors don't align, you can take several approaches to reduce or eliminate the cognitive dissonance. You can change either your beliefs or your behavior. To alter either requires choosing different thoughts. Thus, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is especially useful for resolving cognitive dissonance.

We Change Our Feelings By Changing Our Thoughts

CBT relies on the assumption that thoughts create feelings, and feelings influence behavior. So, during CBT, a therapist may help you examine your thoughts in the interest of making healthy behavioral changes. You can talk about what is distressing to you; then, with the help of your counselor, you can examine your thoughts about the situation in question. Finally, you take a closer look at those thoughts and determine whether they're accurate and rational. If not, you may 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 may make you feel 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. Without it, you might try to resolve the disharmony by quitting your program or self-sabotaging in some other way.

Standard CBT can also encourage you to find new information that bridges two incompatible elements. Your therapist can help you examine which of the behaviors and thoughts are most important to you. When you focus on what's important, the dissonance may diminish.

Rational Living Therapy (RLT) is a specific type of CBT based on the idea that it's your thoughts about people and things that influence your feelings, not the people and things themselves. Like standard CBT, RLT 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 (based on open-ended questioning) and may even accelerate the process through hypnotherapy. The therapist asks you questions designed to help you understand important aspects of situations, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Ultimately, they aim to guide you to discover for yourself that you can control your feelings by changing your thoughts. With this newfound knowledge, you're hopefully ready to start making the necessary changes to improve your mental harmony.

Online Therapy Provides A Space To Reconcile Conflicting Associations

A defining characteristic of cognitive dissonance is that it's psychologically distressing and can feel uncomfortable. Yet, its damage can go beyond feelings. When cognitive dissonance drives your behavior, it can alter the course of your 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. Or you may already know where the dissonance lies but not how to resolve it. In that case, a counselor can help you resolve the tension and teach you how to do it better on your own in the future.

Research shows online counseling is an effective method of treatment for those seeking to address issues with cognitive dissonance. In one study, for example, researchers examined the effects of online dissonance-based therapy when helping to treat individuals living with eating disorders. Some of the study participants were urged to form a more negative association with the notion that an ideal body is a thin body. The control group got no intervention, and a third group got cognitive behavioral therapy. Researchers found that this type of therapy, informed by cognitive dissonance theory from social psychology, helped lead to less body dissatisfaction, reduced depression, and a decrease in internalization of the thin-body ideal. They concluded that online dissonance-based therapy can be a useful means of helping individuals overcome eating disorders.

As discussed above, if you're experiencing difficult-to-process feelings that may be arising out of cognitive dissonance, online therapy can help. And because online therapists don't work out of offices, it's often a more affordable option. A qualified mental health professional can help you better understand your mind and how it operates. Read the reviews in the next section to see how BetterHelp has helped others work with their thoughts and feel better.

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Cognitive dissonance can be burdensome, but therapy can help. Through the therapeutic process, you can take control of your thoughts and attitudes and change behaviors that are causing mental discomfort. Then you can live a life that is aligned with your values and helpful in sustaining your psychological and physical health. 

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