Cognitive dissonance theory

Last week I taught a lecture on Cognitive Dissonance Theory, a communication theory that posits that we are always looking for consistency in our beliefs and attitudes. When there is inconsistency, we experience dissonance which means we experience discomfort and try to change something to eliminate that discomfort.

There are a lot of cognitive dissonance examples and the theory is applicable to lots of contexts; for example anti-smoking campaigns. The disturbing images on cigarette packets are created to make smokers feel uncomfortable (dissonance) so that they will change their behavior (smoke less or quit altogether). Between dissonance and behavior change there are a lot more steps though. People can try and get rid of their dissonance without changing their behavior. They may tell themselves “I don’t smoke that much” or “I’m going to die anyway” or “I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and work out regularly” – to make themselves feel better and get rid of the dissonance.

Inconsistency in our beliefs

When we smoke, but believe smoking is bad, this means there is an inconsistency in our beliefs and it’s exactly that inconsistency that causes cognitive dissonance. In essence cognitive dissonance theory states that we don’t like this dissonance and will try and either rationalize it away or change our behavior (quit smoking) so that we feel better.

I really love this theory because it explains a lot of our thought processes when we want to continue doing something we believe is unhealthy or bad for us. I do this all the time when I eat unhealthy food or skip a workout. What’s most interesting isn’t the ‘truth’: it’s our own ‘beliefs’ that cause dissonance or discomfort. I believe that working out is good for me and makes me look fit. So when I skip a workout because I’m lazy and don’t feel like going to the gym, I experience dissonance. I believe I should workout, but I don’t feel like it.

Example #1: The gym

In this example, what usually happens is that I try and make myself feel better by making the behavior seem less ‘bad’. I tell myself things like ‘I work out all the time, skipping one workout won’t make a difference’ or ‘I look great already, I don’t need to work out’. Unfortunately this only helps a little bit; the only thing that really gets rid of my dissonance is actually changing my behavior – so going to the gym.

Example #2: Fried food

The same happens when I eat junk food. I LOVE fries, they are my favorite food. The greasier the better, preferably with lots of salt and (vegan) mayo. I’ll never deprive myself of eating fries, but I don’t eat fries every day or even every week. I like my figure and I know they aren’t good for me. No matter how ‘good’ I am when it comes to eating healthily, when I eat a large plate of fries I never really enjoy it. I experience dissonance.

Why? Because the fact that I LOVE fries doesn’t make my belief that ‘fried food is unhealthy’ go away. When I’m eating fries, my belief that they aren’t good for me is causing me to feel discomfort. So I don’t enjoy them. The discomfort only goes away if I stop eating them. It’s really stupid and I wish I could change my beliefs, but it’s the way I am.

How I get rid of dissonance

None of this means I spend my life eating healthy food and working out regularly, because that sounds so boring. I skip workouts and order greasy food, because it makes me happy. But I do experience a little dissonance when I ‘stray’ from my healthy path. I’m pretty good at rationalizing it away though, because I don’t want to be good all the time. I enjoy my greasy food a lot more if I haven’t had it in a while and I’m fine with skipping a workout if I believe I have a good reason (and trust me I will find one).

Your beliefs cause your discomfort

A lot of people believe that they feel bad when they eat unhealthy or skip the gym because ‘it’s bad for them’ or because it means they’re ‘lazy’ but according to cognitive dissonance theory it’s our beliefs that cause us to feel bad. You won’t feel bad when you eat unhealthy food unless you believe it’s bad for you. There is no almighty truth, it’s all you! So just change your beliefs and stuff your face with fries, have that extra cup of coffee and enjoy that sugary dessert. Life is too short. I know it’s not that simple, but it’s good to realize it’s essentially ‘all in your head’. Don’t feel bad – turn off your alarm and go back to sleep. You don’t need to work out – summer is still five months away 😉 Plenty of time to get that bikini body!

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