What exactly is cognitive dissonance

Ideally, we act according to our convictions, but even though this sounds obvious, we do not always adhere to them. You can probably think of a few examples where this is the case. For me, the most severe example is that I smoked for 14 years - even though I knew (like most smokers) that it was extremely harmful. So the question is why that is. But first, let's take a closer look at this psychological phenomenon.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon in which one experiences conflict between one's beliefs and behaviors. This often leads to psychological discomfort as one struggles to reconcile these conflicting ideas in order to reduce the cognitive dissonance and return to a state of equilibrium.

How does cognitive dissonance manifest itself?

At its core, cognitive dissonance causes people to become uncomfortable when they do not follow their own beliefs or actions. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways. In studies, even physical effects have been traced:

  • General discomfort that has no obvious or clear cause
  • Confusion
  • Stress
  • Anxiety

The greater the difference between conviction and action, the stronger the reaction usually is.

Dealing with cognitive dissonance

In almost all cases, our moral compass gives us the correct feedback when we do something that is not good. Of course, this can also be wrong, depending on whether we grew up in a reckless, deceitful or even violent environment. But most of the time, we are relatively clear about what is okay and what is not.

But dealing with cognitive dissonance is usually a rather subconscious process, as we are often not even aware of the condition. The result is that we often adjust our beliefs instead of our actions.

You've probably experienced yourself or someone else becoming overly defensive or refusing to admit mistakes. This is one way to deal with this psychological phenomenon: you suppress.

Another variation is that people simply ignore evidence that contradicts their beliefs because they are uncomfortable with the idea of changing them (e.g., believing that man-made climate change is not real even though the scientific evidence is overwhelming).

In some cases, they even resort to desperate measures to dispel inconsistencies - for example, trying to justify bad decisions with excuses like "My uncle lived to be 83 and smoked a pack every day."

A classic example of cognitive dissonance occurred during the Cold War, when U.S. politicians refused to believe reports claiming that Soviet forces were stronger than American forces, even though there was clear evidence to the contrary (leading to disastrous consequences in conflicts such as the Vietnam War). Another example can be observed in everyday life when people reject change even when it promises better results - for example, when they decide against changing from old technologies like floppy disks even though they know that digital storage solutions offer better efficiency and mobility.


We summarize: cognitive dissonance exists when actions and beliefs are not in harmony. There are three ways to react:

  1. We adjust our actions to get back in line with our beliefs (e.g., we stop smoking because we know it's hurting us).
  2. We add something to our belief (e.g., "I do smoke, but I also exercise a lot and eat well.").
  3. We adjust our beliefs so that we do not have to adjust our actions (e.g., when smokers dismiss the consequences of smoking as minor or nonexistent).

When we understand how cognitive dissonance works, we can bring our actions back into alignment with our beliefs. Because in most cases, that's the right - and usually more difficult - thing to do. Of course, there are also situations in which we should actually adjust our beliefs rather than our actions. An example here would be the introduction of mandatory seat belts in the 1970s. People were convinced in rows that seat belts were unnecessary and even baseless claims like "seat belts kill more lives than they save" took root (and in some cases still exist today). It was only over time that most of the population relented and acknowledged that seat belts were actually a good idea.

What about you? Do you have another example that we haven't mentioned yet? Feel free to write it in the comments.

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