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Cognitive Dissonance


Cognitive Dissonance is a psychological state we feel when we find ourselves in a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. This makes us feel uncomfortable and we therefore have to strategize a way out of that state. Psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950's studied a cult that believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood. He wanted to know what would happen to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen. He found that those less invested in the belief could 'put it down to experience' whereas those who had gone all-in were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).

Festinger proposed three routes out of an uncomfortable dissonant state: 1, give up a long held belief behaviour or attitude. This is problematic when it comes to things we really like to do, addicted to or get rewarded for, like smoking for instance. 2, Look for or cling to new information that allows you to dismiss one aspect of the dissonance - Smokers may justify it to themselves as “research has not proved definitively that smoking causes lung cancer, my auntie puffed on 50 a day and lived to 93!”. And 3, reduce the importance of the belief, behaviour or attitude. "We all die of something, might as well be lung cancer!"

We all use strategies such as these to overcome dissonance we continually experience in our day to day lives. We are constantly required to make decisions and behave in ways that are contrary to what we already think we know about the world. Most of these are harmless, they help us navigate the stresses of existence, but occasionally they can have profound implications on our lives, our health and on our prospects in life. Understanding and recognising the psychological stresses and the strategies we use to manage them can help us avoid bad decision making.

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