January 2, 2023

What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

Distress and discomfort can occur when your behaviors or actions conflict with your values

Person questioning beliefs with question marks flying around their head.

There’s a certain kind of confidence that comes with being grounded in your beliefs. It feels good knowing you’re able to uphold certain values, like the ones you learned from your parents and caregivers or the ones you’ve carved out for yourself based on your own personal experiences.

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But you can feel caught off guard when those values and beliefs are shaken by social pressures, the presence of new information or having to make a rushed last-minute decision. Sometimes, we can even get caught up in behaving or reacting a certain way that doesn’t necessarily align with how we really feel — and then we end up feeling lost.

Psychologist Kia-Rai Prewitt, PhD, explains how to manage this feeling of discomfort, what’s known as cognitive dissonance, and how it can affect your mental health and other relationships when left unchecked.

What is cognitive dissonance?

When you do something or behave a certain way that goes against your values, you may experience cognitive dissonance. This clash of beliefs and disruption of thought can also occur if you have two or more conflicting beliefs and you’re torn between them.

“If you believe in the power of recycling but you don’t have access to a recycling program in your community, this can cause you distress or discomfort because you have this value that’s important to you but you’re not participating in it,” says Dr. Prewitt.

Cognitive dissonance is that mental space of discomfort, angst, guilt or shame associated with the decisions you’re making or the beliefs you’re questioning. And it can occur with something as simple as recycling to more complicated behaviors and beliefs you’re struggling with such as quitting smoking, eating healthier or defining your sexual orientation and gender identity.

“When you’re consistently making choices that go against your beliefs, it can cause a lot of stress and unhappiness,” notes Dr. Prewitt. “You’re feeling this discomfort because you’re trying to figure it out and actively work through this conflict.”

And that’s not to say that cognitive dissonance is necessarily a bad thing: If you’re feeling discomfort about your actions or beliefs, it may be a sign that you need to check in with yourself. In essence, cognitive dissonance is a crossroad, and what you decide to do with those conflicting beliefs and behaviors will determine where you’re headed next and who you want to be.

Signs of cognitive dissonance

Some signs you may be experiencing cognitive dissonance include:

  • Questioning the decisions you’ve made.
  • Experiencing discomfort because your values don’t coincide with your environment.
  • Feeling guilt or shame based on your decisions or beliefs.
  • Difficulty rationalizing or justifying your actions or the actions of others.

“One way people work through cognitive dissonance is to rationalize their behavior,” explains Dr. Prewitt. “If you value eating healthy, then one day decide to eat a doughnut, you might rationalize why eating that doughnut is OK even though it goes against your values of eating healthy. If you feel you have to justify those actions in order to be OK with them or you’re carrying around guilt because of what you did, those are signs you’re having cognitive dissonance.”

What causes cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance can occur for a number of reasons, but perhaps some of the most common causes include the following:

Receiving new information

New information can shed a lot of light on how you really feel about a subject. It can also force you to confront things you may never have thought about before.

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Let’s say you’ve been a longtime customer of a particular sandwich shop in your neighborhood, but one day, you realize that the shop’s owner has been confronted with allegations that they have poor business practices. You don’t like what you’re hearing, but it is your favorite sandwich shop. Plus, it’s the closest restaurant within walking distance from your home, so you go get lunch there anyway, despite what you’ve heard. Then, the guilt sinks in, and you’re torn about being a continuing customer. Now you have to decide: Do you support that business, or do you take your business elsewhere?

“The same thing happens when we’re faced with whether or not we want to uphold stereotypes,” says Dr. Prewitt. “If you have a certain belief or uphold a negative stereotype about a group of people, but every time you interact with someone who is a member of that group, you have a positive experience, you may start having some discomfort around that belief. One of the options you have in dealing with that discomfort is to actually change your belief.”

Social pressures

You may also experience cognitive dissonance when you have situations where friends, family members or coworkers act a certain way that don’t align with your beliefs. You may be pressured into allowing those actions to continue or participate in those actions yourself — and that can leave you with some significant discomfort, so you end up questioning exactly how you should feel about the situation.

“You may experience discomfort if a family member is in disagreement or in opposition with your sexual orientation or your political beliefs and you have to face them during a holiday gathering,” poses Dr. Prewitt. “You may also experience discomfort at work if your company’s business practices don’t reflect your personal values.”

Being forced into a decision

When faced with conflict, you may experience cognitive dissonance if you make a decision to lessen potential conflict between you and other people, but it’s not necessarily a decision you fully believe in. When faced with a deadline, you could even cut corners to accomplish a task, but then experience discomfort when it’s done because you value hard work.

“You’re more likely to feel guilty if you’re doing something that goes against your values,” notes Dr. Prewitt.

Examples of cognitive dissonance

Some other examples of cognitive dissonance include:

  • Your family is supportive of your decision to quit smoking. But one day, you’re super stressed, so you sneak a cigarette when your family isn’t around because you don’t want to disappoint them. You may experience cognitive dissonance if these actions make you feel guilty or if you feel like you’ve let your family down.
  • You may want to start eating healthier, but you’ve heard healthy food is really expensive. So, you rely on fast food more often because it’s affordable and more accessible. If you feel stuck or ashamed of this decision or you feel conflicted about how you handle your meals, you’re dealing with cognitive dissonance.
  • You’ve made a New Year’s resolution to exercise more, but a month into the new year, you’ve cut back from going to the gym because you’ve been really tired lately. There’s a lot going on at work and you have chores to do at home. You don’t really have time to workout, do you? If you feel torn between your responsibilities and your desire to improve physically, and you’re rationalizing your choice to stay home, you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance.

What does cognitive dissonance feel like?

Cognitive dissonance can feel a lot like anxiety and stress — and they often come paired together. When you’re stressed or anxious, you could affect your overall mental, emotional and physical health.

“You may spend a lot of time worrying or reflecting on the conflict,” says Dr. Prewitt. “If you’re stressed you may feel it in your body and have tension in your muscles or lower back.”

It can also further strain your relationships with others, especially if you’re having cognitive dissonance related to what someone else is saying or doing.

How to reduce cognitive dissonance

So, how can you make sure your actions and values are aligned? And how can you minimize internal and external conflict when you have cognitive dissonance? Dr. Prewitt suggests the following:

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Be assertive about your needs

Set healthy boundaries from the beginning and reinstate them if someone crosses a line. By being assertive about your values, you can minimize continued conflict from the start but also empower yourself to hold that space for your needs.

“If you’re not able to be genuine about your needs, then that’s going to create more stress and distance in your relationships,” warns Dr. Prewitt.

Table the discussion if you need to

Sometimes, when you’re faced with difficult decisions in the moment, it’s best to take a break and revisit it later when all parties have processed what’s happened. This is especially true if you’re caught up in a toxic work environment.

“It’s OK to address a decision or someone’s behavior at a later time, especially if your conflict is with someone in a position of power like an employer,” says Dr. Prewitt. “It might be uncomfortable in the moment, but you can always choose the option to go along with something you don’t agree with and address it after the fact if you feel safe to do so.”

Take action

Sometimes, new information leads to cognitive dissonance, but that also allows you to take new actions you may not have thought about taking before.

Take the recycling example from earlier: If recycling isn’t available in your community, you could advocate for it at city hall, create a community discussion about starting a recycling program or find a nearby recycling center to better align with your values.

“It depends on the immediacy of the situation and whether or not there’s any way to resolve it, but sometimes, new information can lead to action,” says Dr. Prewitt.

Challenge your beliefs

At the end of the day, it’s good to challenge what you believe. That’s how we grow and evolve into better people. When you discover new information and you’re faced with the uncomfortable decision to … well, make decisions, embrace a positive outlook.

“As young people evolve into adulthood, they often begin questioning what gives them meaning. Oftentimes, their values and beliefs are closely aligned with their parents or caregivers,” says Dr. Prewitt. “As they gain more independence, they realize some of those beliefs might be holding them back or don’t add up in the way they used to, so they start reevaluating their beliefs. That can be a positive thing.”

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