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  • Writer's pictureDr Maike Neuhaus

Cognitive dissonance: What it is (+ 3 things you can do to tame this worst enemy of yours)

Let’s say you consider yourself to be an environmentally-friendly person. One day, you need to buy a new car. The one you like the most is unfortunately the least fuel-efficient of all. Sucks, doesn’t it? You want it, but thinking about buying will cause you to feel bad – the action of buying an eco-unfriendly car doesn’t match your self-belief.

What you’re experiencing is cognitive dissonance.

The term cognitive dissonance was named by social psychologist Leon Festinger. Knowingly or not, your mind does not like this discrepancy between our behaviour and self-image and will be highly driven to get rid of it.

Eventually, you’ll end up doing one of three things.

Cognitive dissonance: What it is (+ 3 things you can do to tame this worst enemy of yours)
Cognitive dissonance: What it is (+ 3 things you can do to tame this worst enemy of yours)

1) Change your behaviour

Don’t buy the car. Easy. Then again, emotionally most challenging and often the least preferred option.

2) Change the perception of your behaviour

For example, you could change your perception of your behaviour. We do this by justifying, adding beliefs and/ or trivialising. Consider this justification: buying the car is not necessarily an eco-unfriendly behaviour. What makes you an eco-friendly person is the sum of eco-friendly actions you take, such as minimum-waste shopping, recycling, little travel etc. All things considered, purchasing a car that has a slightly higher fuel consumption than others won’t have an overly negative impact on your eco-friendliness overall. Plus, you barely even use your car.

This is an example of adding beliefs: You could argue that the car you want to buy is not an eco-unfriendly car. After all, how eco-unfriendly a car is should be determined by a number of its characteristics, not simply its fuel-economy. This includes good emission sensors, LED lights etc. So, all things considered, this car is actually quite eco-friendly after all.

3) Change your belief

Rather than considering yourself a die-hard eco-friendly person, you might soften your belief to be 'eco-friendly as much as you can'.

Why is it important to be aware of cognitive dissonance and our motivation to retain congruence between the beliefs about ourselves (including our values) and our behaviour?

Because when we strive for goals, it gets hard leading us to want to change plans or procrastinate, we run the risk of telling ourselves ‘stories’ that justify our inaction or giving up. ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’.

I am sure you can think of a scenario in which you have felt cognitive dissonance and might have opted for the ‘easy’ solution of changing your belief or justifying your behaviour/ inaction. That makes giving up really comfortable, doesn’t it?!

So, what can you do to avoid fooling yourself?

1) Be aware of risky situations

Simply being aware of the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance might make it a little trickier for you to get in your own way in the future. Any time you find yourself in a situation where behaviour change is hard, beware of what's going on in your thoughts. Try to catch yourself out when swapping your plans of behaviour change for changes to your beliefs or about your actual behaviour.

2) Be critical with yourself: believe your actions, not your intentions

Monitor your behaviour and beliefs and question the stories you tell yourself when you're not acting in line with our goal. If you want to save money, but you find yourself spending on yet another pair of shoes (ok, looking at myself here), then you don't want to save money but buy more shoes! It's as simple as that (besides - you and I know it's not really going to be the last pair this time).

3) If the damage is done, be honest with yourself

Is there something wrong with wanting to buy shoes rather than saving money? You are the only one who can answer that question for yourself. Just stop pretending - it's a waste of your time and prevents you from getting anywhere with your goals. The first step of change is taking stock of and accepting whatever is going on for you. The more often you're honest with yourself, the less likely you will fool yourself for the sake of cognitive harmony in the future.

What situation can you think of where you may have acted against your plan simply to eliminate cognitive dissonance?

Maike x


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