What is Cognitive Dissonance?

| Staff Writers

Cognitive dissonance is an often-quoted phrase in political debates and psychology discussions, but what does it really mean? To understand why people behave in seemingly contradictory ways, you need to understand this concept. This article presents a detailed definition, several examples and some current research on whether this type of dissonance is positive or negative.

Breaking Down the Meaning

To understand this phrase, you must first examine each of the words in it. Cognitive refers to thoughts, while dissonance is a tension between two separate elements. Put together, the two words mean a tension between disagreeing thoughts, feelings or behaviors. To phrase it a different way, feeling strongly about something and then acting contrary to your feelings causes discomfort. This lack of comfort and your mental steps to resolve this tension are what psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance.

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Examples of Mental Tension

Perhaps the easiest way to understand this phenomenon is to look at a few examples. Aesop’s fables provide a well-known illustration with the tale of the fox and the grapes. The hungry fox craves grapes, but when he cannot reach them, he starts to experience discomfort because of the difference between his desires and his abilities. To resolve this unpleasant feeling, the fox changes his desires by claiming the grapes are probably sour. A more recent example would be the difference between Obama’s praises for NASA and his low levels of proposed funding for the organization.

How Can I Reduce Dissonant Thoughts?

Because your brain naturally avoids uncomfortable situations, you try to reduce cognitive mismatches when you encounter them. You subconsciously use a few different tactics to do so. Let’s continue with the example of the fox and the grapes. The fox could resolve to stop being interested in grapes anymore or to decide he doesn’t like fruit that’s too far off the ground. He could also tell himself that he’ll come later to get the grapes when he’s feeling hungrier. Any of these strategies would limit the difference between what he thinks he wants to do and what he’s actually able to do.

Is Mental Dissonance Bad?

Some researchers have explored ways to use dissonance to create positive behaviors. For example, educators can use mental discomfort to encourage students to think critically and explore new information on a deep level. Because students are motivated to reduce their unpleasant feelings, they are more willing to stay involved in the lesson. Psychologists have suggested that talk therapy is partially effective because patients feel that investing their time and money into treatment should lead to an improved mental state. Even if the therapy itself isn’t helping, the expectation of change may lead to results anyway.

Now that you have a better understanding of this phenomenon, you can start identifying it in your own life. Cognitive dissonance can be a useful self-improvement tool or a mental trap to avoid depending on the circumstances, so pay attention to how it manifests for you.

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