- Cognitive dissonance is a very important part of contemporary social psychology. The simplest description of cognitive dissonance is a feeling of doubt experienced when receiving new information or debating a choice. We will look at some of the ways that dissonance occurs. Although the term cognitive dissonance sounds like it has negative connotation, it is actually a neutral term. Sometimes news is good, or bad, but even good news does actually cause a little bit of stress. Well according to health psychologists, but we can talk about that later.
New information – forming new constructs, editing old ones, or disregarding the information.
- Imagine you are sitting around and someone tells you that you are actually an alien from another planet. This causes you dissonance because this does not fit with your current construct of the idea you have of yourself. A construct is basically the qualities that define a person, place or thing, in your own opinion. So one person’s construct of a “fast car” might be about the way it looks (i.e. it looks sporty), while another person’s idea of a fast car is related to the actual engine. So this man calls you an alien, and this definitely does not fit with your constructs, so you have to decide whether to accept or reject this new information. Since it appears he is a non-trustworthy source of information, you create a new construct. This construct holds one bit of information – “that crazy man is crazy and he does not tell the truth.” So this process of organizing this new information makes us feel a level of dissonance. The more mental work that is required, the more dissonance one would feel. Thus, if I told you that “the man you know as your father is an imposter, here is the DNA testing to prove it, and here is a man who looks just like you who appears to be your real father,” you would experience a much higher level of dissonance. This would uproot your entire idea of your place in life, and cause you a lot of mental stress.
- As for a positive example of cognitive dissonance – let’s imagine that I say, “I only have 10 bucks in my wallet. I guess I will spend all of it on gasoline today.” I drive to the gas station, open my wallet and find a 20 dollar bill. Well that is good news! This makes me wonder how I miscalculated, and I have to update my construct of “my immense wealth” but that doesn’t take much work at all. Less stressful by far, but still technically dissonance.
Debating a choice
- Mulling things over and over in your head is a stressful process. You are trying to make the best decision that you can, given your limited resources, and failure to do so will reflect poorly on you. Not that you are being judged by others, but we are judging ourselves. If we make what we believe are good choices, it helps bolster our self-esteem. Thus ensuring we make the best choice every time is worth the effort we put into our decisions.
- Dissonance cannot be reduced until we have made our decision, and irrevocability of that decision actually makes it easier. That is, if you make a choice and can never go back, no amount of regret can change your decision. However, if you are always given the choice to change your mind, you will experience a lot more dissonance. It makes you wonder what would happen if divorce was illegal… haha!
- This was shown with some interesting research allowing participants to choose a prize after filling out a fake survey. The participants chose from 3 paintings that were all independently rated to be of equal attractiveness, but the participants were split into two group. Group one chose an item, and they kept it. Group two chose an item, and were told they may exchange it one week later. Both groups were brought back one week later and asked to rate their satisfaction with the painting they chose. The group that did not have the opportunity to switch paintings ended up liking their paintings more than the group that had the chance to change their mind. There are a number of explanations for this, but one factor is true. The group who had to stick with their choice had to engage in dissonance reduction techniques that are self-serving – “I made a good choice, because I always make good choices.” The group that could change their mind on the other hand had to look for flaws with the product, “is this the right choice, is that a good color… does this really fit with my living room?” These dissonance reduction techniques we use serve to make us believe our choices are good ones. I know we like to believe we are above it, but just look back on your life. Sure we all have tons of choices we may regret, but how many of our irrevocable choices would be made less certain when given the opportunity to change them. It’s a strange question, and one that is quite open to philosophical debate, I’m sure.
In the end, we are always trying to do the least amount of mental work as possible. When it comes to getting rid of dissonance, we are more likely to find information that confirms our current constructs instead of editing old ones, ir removing old ones. This leads us to be a bit close minded, but it’s how we function normally. Dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling, and it might even be related to personality factors (read more about the BIG 5 later on!!!!), but it is a natural process. Dissonance helps us explain how people come to make decisions and protect their self-image. This leads us to our next post regarding contingencies of self-worth and how they serve to drive our behavior.