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Cognitive Dissonance: How it Affects You & 5 Ways to Overcome It


How aligned are your values and actions? We may say one thing only for our behavior to give a completely different message. Not only does this create a feeling of discomfort within ourselves, but it paints us as a hypocrite. We’ve all done it, though, stuffed cake into our mouths while telling our colleagues that we are on a healthy living mission. This is called cognitive dissonance, and it's beneficial for you to overcome it.

Are you ready to demolish the clash between our values and behavior? It takes a lot of internal work not to jump in with excuses. Often, we avoid this conflict by burying our heads in the sand. But this is not a long-term solution. If we take this approach, the stress, anxiety, and unhappiness of our cognitive dissonance will finally catch up with us. 

This article will discuss cognitive dissonance. We will explain how cognitive dissonance impacts us and provide 5 ways you can overcome it.

What is cognitive dissonance? 

Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort of holding 2 contrasting beliefs or attitudes. It comes to light when our actions do not align with our values.

This cognitive bias creates inconsistencies between what we say and what we do. 

Most of us suffer from cognitive dissonance at various stages in our lives. Telltale signs of suffering from cognitive dissonance include: 

  • A gut feeling of discomfort before, during, or after doing something. 
  • The urge to justify an action or defend an opinion. 
  • Feeling ashamed. 
  • Feeling confused. 
  • Being accused of being a hypocrite.

To minimize these signs, we effectively put our fingers in our ears to new information that contradicts our beliefs and actions.

This reaction leads us to deal with information that doesn’t fit our agenda through: 

  • Rejection. 
  • Justification.
  • Avoidance.

The disharmony between our contrasting beliefs and behaviors is dissonance. 

What are examples of cognitive dissonance?

Veganism is a clear-cut example of cognitive dissonance. Let’s take the example of people who express their love for animals but continue to buy into their exploitation by consuming meat and dairy. 

It isn’t nice to hear of the suffering, exploitation, and cruelty in the meat and dairy industry. When I was a vegetarian, I was proud of myself for not feeding into the demand of the meat industry. I still ate eggs and dairy. As I learned of the cruelty in the dairy industry, I found myself doing exactly as described above. 

I rejected information on the dairy industry. I justified why I still consumed dairy, and I avoided either talking about my behavior or reading articles that made me feel conflicted. I buried my head in the sand, and it did not make me feel any better. 

On the one hand, I saw myself as a kind, compassionate, animal-loving individual. On the other hand, my behavior was not representative of someone who was a kind, compassionate animal lover. 

Eventually, I owned it—no more excuses. My actions did not correspond with my ethics. 

It wasn’t until I became vegan that the sense of discomfort and shame dissipated. I overcame my cognitive dissonance by aligning my behavior with my values. 

Another example is evident in the smoking population. 

Most smokers know full well how damaging the habit is. Yet, they continue to jeopardize their health through this addictive habit. The media bombards us with anti-smoking information through TV ads, campaigns, governmental policies, and even hard-hitting images printed on cigarette packets. And still, smokers choose to smoke. 

I’ve had interesting conversations with smokers who reject the science and come out with theories about how smoking is good for them and why they need it. They ramble a justification for why they smoke, and they sometimes even avoid the conversation in the first place by shutting it down. 

Smokers have academic knowledge that smoking is bad for their health, yet they continue this behavior.

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Studies on cognitive dissonance 

Leon Festinger is the psychologist who initially developed the Cognitive Dissonance Theory back in 1957. 

He had several studies to prove cognitive dissonance. One of his most well-known studies focuses on the core knowledge that lying is wrong. 

The study involved participants partaking in an arduous series of tasks. The author asked the participants to lie to the next “participant” (an experimental accomplice) and tell them the task was both interesting and enjoyable. Participants were provided with a financial incentive to lie. 

Participants were split into 2 categories and given either $1 or $20 as an incentive. 

Festinger found that the participants who were given $20 did not experience dissonance as they had decent justification for their lying behavior. Whereas those who were only given $1 had minimal justification for lying and experienced dissonance. 

How does cognitive dissonance affect your mental health?

This article outlines that people who experience cognitive dissonance are more likely to be unhappy and stressed. It also suggests that those who experience cognitive dissonance with no resolution are more likely to feel powerless and guilty. 

I understand this feeling of being powerless and feeling guilty.

In a previous job, I was instructed to demand certain things from my team. I disagreed with what I was doing, yet my hands were tied. Work became a source of stress. I felt powerless to help my colleagues, and I felt guilty regarding the unhealthy work environment that I essentially created. But I needed the job and felt there was no way out. 

Eventually, the stress got too much to bear, and I left. 

This article suggests cognitive dissonance impacts our mental health through feelings of:  

  • Discomfort
  • Stress. 
  • Anxiety.

Cognitive dissonance and climate change

While discussing cognitive dissonance, we can not avoid the subject of climate change. Climate change is a crucial news topic worldwide; apocalyptic fears inundate us. When our behavior continues to ignore this information, we clash with our values. This clash creates discomfort, stress, and anxiety. 

There are several well-known ways of reducing our carbon footprint to help fight the climate crisis. I don’t know about you, but I regularly suffer from climate change-induced anxiety. I help control this by making a concerted effort to do my bit in reducing my carbon footprint. I have amended my behavior to tackle my cognitive dissonance. 

  • Drive less and take public transport where you can. 
  • Have fewer children. 
  • Eat a vegan diet as much as possible. 
  • Recycle. 
  • Buy less, especially fast fashion. 
  • Be energy aware and try and use less. 
  • Fly less. 

When we start to take action, we reduce the impact of cognitive dissonance on our mental health. 

5 tips for dealing with cognitive dissonance 

Cognitive dissonance can help us feel satisfied with our choices in life. However, I would suggest this is a surface-level satisfaction. We want to live authentically from our core. 

When we resolve our cognitive dissonance, we motivate ourselves to make good choices. 

Here are 5 tips for dealing with cognitive dissonance. 

1. Be mindful 

Slow yourself down and give yourself the space to think things through. 

If left unchecked, our brains can behave like toddlers. But when we take control and use mindfulness to slow it down, we can recognize the conflict of cognitive dissonance and figure out if we need to update our values or change our behavior. 

Mindfulness is soaring in popularity these days. A few ways to engage in mindfulness include: 

  • Adult coloring in books. 
  • Nature walks
  • Birdwatching or watching wildlife in its natural habitat. 
  • Meditation. 
  • Breathing exercises and yoga. 

A mindful mind brings clarity and helps us navigate our way through the fog. If you're looking for more tips, here's one of our articles on mindfulness and why it's so important.

2. Change your behavior 

When our values and actions are not aligned, sometimes the only way to find peace is to change our behavior. 

We can try to change our values, but this is an evasion and often a fabrication. If I wanted to continue consuming dairy, I would need to amend my values for animal rights and kindness.

Changing my values was an impossible task. Therefore, it was easier to change my behavior and transition from eating a vegetarian diet to living a vegan lifestyle. 

When we feel the discomfort of our cognitive dissonance, something has to give. As we know, it is not healthy for our beliefs and actions to resemble a constant tug of war. 

We can align our behavior to fit our values. Not only does this bring about a sense of relief. But we immediately feel our authentic selves deepen.

3. Own your flaws

Owning our flaws is the first step to recognizing what drives our behavior. As we know, cognitive dissonance makes us feel compelled to reject, justify or avoid information. 

When we own our flaws, we stop making excuses

Imagine the smoker who sits with their behavior and doesn’t try to rectify information about how bad smoking is nor try to justify their behavior or avoid talking about it. They admit it is a bad habit and acknowledge that it is terrible for their health, not to mention the impact on their finances. 

Accepting our flaws and not jumping to deny them through rejection, justification, or avoidance makes us more likely to seek to change our behavior. 

4. Stay curious  

When we stay curious, we remain open to change. Staying curious is a constant reminder that things can change and there are alternative ways to think and behave. 

Our curiosity may encourage us to research information for ourselves. It may help us explore our options and find ways to become better informed and change our behavior. 

Wise are those who know there are different ways of thinking and behaving. There comes a time when we feel beaten down by our cognitive dissonance, and we start recognizing that there is an easier way. 

Be open to change. Read, learn, and open up your mind to alternatives. If you're looking for more tips, here's our article on how to be more curious in life.

5. Avoid being defensive 

This tip goes hand in hand with owning your flaws and staying curious. When we act defensively, we are impenetrable. Our minds are closed, and we lash out. We justify unhealthy behaviors, and we remain trapped. 

When we accept that we don’t always get it right, we permit ourselves to tweak behavior that no longer serves us.

For instance, if we are accused of being a hypocrite, it is easy to get defensive. But sit with this. Does the accusation hold merit? Do we walk the walk and talk the talk, or are we just full of hot air?

Instead of jumping to your defense, listen to the messages all around you. When we listen and process incoming information, we grow.

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Wrapping up

Cognitive dissonance is a protective strategy. It helps our mind avoid discomfort when our values and actions don’t match. As much as we may try and use tactics such as justifying our actions, rejecting information, or avoiding facing up to the conflict in the first place, we can not evade the stress of cognitive dissonance without creating change.

Do you often recognize cognitive dissonance in yourself or others? Do you know of any other tips to help overcome cognitive dissonance? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!

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Ali Hall

Writer

Kindness is my superpower. Dogs and nature are my oxygen. Psychology with Sports science graduate. Scottish born and bred. I’ve worked and traveled all over the world. Find me running long distances on the hills and trails.

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