What is cognitive dissonance?


The concept of cognitive dissonance was put forward by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. His theory proposed that we have an inner drive to be in a state of harmony which we strive to achieve and maintain by aligning our attitudes, values, thoughts and behaviours. This is known as the principle of cognitive consistency and is something we need in order to be in the world.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; or participates in an action that goes against one of these three. It is the mental conflict that occurs when our thoughts and our behaviours don’t fit together. This conflict can be thought of as psychological stress.

 A classic example is the person who smokes knowing full well that smoking causes cancer. This person obviously has the knowledge that he or she smokes whilst also knowing that smoking is bad for them. The key aspect of cognitive dissonance is the inconsistency that exists between the two thoughts. This leads to a state of ‘dissonance’ – a feeling of discomfort – that we cannot sustain.

What is fascinating about cognitive dissonance is what we do to take ourselves out of this state of anguish. The discomfort we feel from two (or more) thoughts not being psychologically consistent acts as a motivating force for us to do something to reduce it, to help us achieve a state of consistency again. Festinger suggested that we aim to resolve cognitive dissonance in four different ways. To continue the example of smoking and knowing that it’s harmful, a person might:

  • Change the thought by thinking – “Smoking isn’t that bad”. 
  • Change the behaviour – by actually stopping smoking.
  • Add a new thought – “Well, I go to the gym five times a week and don’t have cancer in my family so I’ll be OK”.
  • Or trivialise the inconsistency – “Yes I know it’s bad but we’re all gonna die one day”.

It sounds simple but the downside is that a lot of the time, we reduce the dissonance by deluding ourselves, or by using something to [temporarily] distract us, to silence the thoughts and numb the feelings. And on this last point - the term cognitive dissonance and the focus on the conflicting thoughts make it sounds as though the concept is a very ‘cerebral’ thing, something that only happens in the mind. A really crucial point to make here is that cognitive dissonance is actually quite the opposite – it’s a very physical thing, it’s something we feel. It’s uncomfortable! So we will do whatever we can to move away from the emotional and physical pain.

People employ a vast range of defences in the search for inner harmony. Particularly elaborate ones are the smoke screens some people put up to stop themselves from seeing the true nature of their actions, often involving some sense of giving to charity or being honourable and upstanding members of society. Think Jimmy Saville and the millions of pounds he raised for NHS trusts or Jeffrey Epstein and his global philanthropy where he donated millions to hospitals, universities and film festivals. Not only do these smokescreens serve to distract people from the outside looking in from really seeing what’s going on, they also deeply delude the people putting up the smokescreens themselves. The problem is less about bad people who do bad things, and more about ‘good’ people who justify the bad things they do to preserve their belief that they’re good people.

Why might we be feeling it during this time?

So how does this relate to Covid? Well, the first thing to say is that we will have been experiencing cognitive dissonance in the pre-Covid world and will absolutely experience it after. It is a reality of everyday life which is why we wanted to specifically focus on it in this podcast series. Understanding it now will put you in very good stead for being able to work with it in healthier ways for the rest of your life.

A lot of what is causing cognitive dissonance at the current time relates to what is happening around us, leading to thoughts that might conflict with previously held attitudes, values and beliefs about how we understand and see the world. We are finding ourselves in positions now that challenge these and experiencing cognitive dissonance as a result: buying things from Amazon even though we might be morally opposed to it (“Amazon is taking over the world, I’m not going to contribute to it”); to feeling the need to buy something – anything! – from the shop because we’ve queued for half an hour even though they don’t have what we went in for (“I only buy the things I need”).

A huge development as we end June and move into July 2020 are the easing of restrictions around lockdown leading to a huge sense of anxiety and unease amongst many of us. What we are seeing happening around us is, for many people, very different to how we feel things probably should be. The irony being is that life in early lockdown was in many ways much clearer when compared to the conflicting messages we are receiving now as restrictions are being lifted.

Some examples that might be causing cognitive dissonance at this time are:

  • The state of being forced into the here and now during the earlier stages of lockdown is being replaced by talk of moving out of lockdown and into a future which is incredibly unclear. How do we move into a world that doesn’t match up to the old one we were so familiar with?
  • Fearful about being forced to go back to a world full of the same inequalities that existed before, particularly when so many have risen to the surface and have been visible in ways we have never experienced.
  • Seeing fewer people out and about wearing facemasks whilst being aware that we are still in the grip of a global pandemic. Have people returned to Kubler-Ross’ DENIAL phase?
  • Dealing with lockdown fatigue whilst knowing it is safer to stay indoors at the same time as seeing seemingly everyone else going about their daily business. Did you miss out on a major piece of good news that they didn’t?
  • Feeling anxious about some of the more positive aspects of lockdown being lost as we potentially ‘return’ to how things were: having a slower pace of life; spending more time with loved ones; spending more time at home; not commuting; feeling happy about not having to be social.
  • Feeling a whole range of feelings about having the third highest Covid death rate in the world. “But we’re the UK!”, “How can we be higher than the developing countries of the world?”. How do you think you’d feel if you were in the bottom three rather than the top?
  • Having a lack of trust in the Government and their ability to make decisions that prioritise the health of people over the health of the economy yet still feeling very much at their mercy.
  • Lapsing in your weekly pledges to yourself to eat less crisps, snap less at the kids, go to bed earlier, get up earlier, be a kinder person…


What is the impact of it on us?

 We simply cannot sustain being in a state of inner conflict for so long. Being in a state of psychological distress and discomfort is EXHAUSTING. It keeps us awake at night, it impacts our ability to concentrate, it gives us heart burn, and a whole lot more. Our dreams, the place we usually go to to replenish our mental energy and process how what is happening in our lives, are for many people no longer the places of respite they once were. The inner conflict continues in our dream states as our brains try their best to process the magnitude of what is happening. Many are having fractured, fragmented, intense dreams with adrenalized sleeps that leave them tired when you wake up. Many are saying that they are sleeping much more than they used to.

Anxiety and cognitive dissonance are intimately connected. Both are uncomfortable and both lead to us engaging in behaviours that aim to change how we feel. Drink and drugs, food, online shopping, give us momentary respite but mean we often don’t know what exactly what the conflicting thoughts are as we’re so quick to run away from them. 

Another effect is having a greater need for clarity to help resolve the discomfort. We may endlessly watch the news and spend time on social media in an effort to seek clarity that frequently only serves to add more noise to already conflicting pieces of information. We are striving to bring harmony to a situation that is far from harmonious. 

Resolving the dissonance we may be experiencing about the easing of lockdown is to think “FUCK IT. Everyone else seems to be acting as if the pandemic is over, I might as well join them”. This is likely to lead to us putting ourselves at risk in ways that we wouldn’t have just a couple of weeks ago.

So what the hell are we supposed to do about it?

Understand the concept first of all. Understand that it is entirely normal, understandable and acceptable to be feeling confused, anxious, and sleep deprived at this current time! There is every reason to be. Understanding the normality of the feelings and recognising that at the root may well be some dissonance of some kind can hopefully lead to a bit of investigating to find out just what might be in conflict.

Understand that feeling particularly tired is probably very likely to be related to being in a prolonged state of conflict and confusion. We have never experienced anything like this EVER BEFORE. That understanding might help you understand your tiredness in a way that says it’s OK, and to stop beating yourself up or feeling guilty about sleeping in, not being as productive as you were, not doing enough, etc. Try to develop some healthier habits around bedtime: not taking stimulants a few hours before bed (yep – cigarettes, coffee, sugar, and unfortunately even dark chocolate); not reading the news or being on your phone/tablet/computer for an hour or two before you sleep.

Know that you can hold two (or more) opposing thoughts at once. You can love your partner and be angry with them; you can buy something from Amazon and know that you can go back to your resolve after the pandemic; you can lapse in your Sunday evening pledge to yourself about having a healthier/kinder/less news/whatever week and still be a decent human being.

We experience cognitive dissonance daily, relating to a whole spectrum of tiny to huge things. Understanding it and developing a relationship to the discomfort or anxiety you feel when you’re experiencing dissonance can help you pause, investigate and have a think about what might be going on. Is there a mismatch between your beliefs and your actions? Learning to tune in to what the conflict is can lead to positive change and growth as you learn to listen to what feels right. It can help you to understand your own inner values, identify what is important to you and help you lead a life that is more authentic.


Things to think about for the seminars:


  • Can you relate to the concept of cognitive dissonance? If yes, are you able to identify what are the different parts – your ideas, beliefs, values maybe – that are in conflict?
  • How is cognitive dissonance affecting you at this time? What are some of the ways you have been managing it? And have they been effective??
  • If they haven’t been that great, what are some of the ways you could work with your cognitive dissonance that are more realistic or kinder?