Cognitive dissonance: the theory behind self-deception

Psychologist Leon Festinger proposed the cognitive dissonance theoryThis explains how people try to maintain internal consistency in their beliefs and ideas that they have internalized.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what Festinger says cognitive dissonance is and its implications for our lives.

    What is cognitive dissonance?

    Social psychologist Leon Festinger suggested that people have a strong need for their beliefs, attitudes and behaviors to be consistent with one another., Avoid contradictions between these elements. When there is inconsistency between them, the conflict leads to the disharmony of the ideas carried by the person, which often generates embarrassment.

    This theory has been widely studied in the field of psychology and can be defined as the discomfort, stress or anxiety that individuals experience when their beliefs or attitudes conflict with what they are doing. this dissatisfaction can lead to an attempt to change behavior or defend one’s beliefs or attitudes (even attaining self-deception) to reduce the discomfort they produce.

    Festinger is the author of “Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” (1957), a work that revolutionized the field of social psychology, and has been used in different fields, such as motivation, group dynamics, the study of attitude changes and decision making.

    The relationship between lying and cognitive dissonance

    One of the topics that has captured the most attention of researchers is the relationship between lying and cognitive dissonance. Leon Festinger himself, along with his colleague James Merrill Carlsmith, conducted a study which showed that the minds of those who are wrong resolve cognitive dissonance by “accepting lies as truth”.

    While cognitive dissonance can be resolved in a number of ways, we have often chosen to “cheat” to make it go away. It involves manipulating our own ideas and beliefs to make them seemingly fit together, creating the fiction that the onset of cognitive dissonance discomfort had no reason to exist in the first place. However, it makes us vulnerable to repeatedly dealing with the consequences of this secret contradiction that we haven’t really resolved.

    The Festinger and Carlsmith experience

    They both designed an experiment to prove that if we have little extrinsic motivation to justify behavior that goes against our attitudes or beliefs, we tend to change our minds to rationalize our actions.

    To do this, they asked the students at Stanford University, divided into three groups, to complete a task that they found very boring. Subsequently, the subjects were asked to lie, as they had to tell a new group that they were going to complete the task, that it had been fun. Group 1 was allowed to leave without saying anything to the new group, Group 2 was paid $ 1 before lying, and Group 3 was paid $ 20.

    A week later, Festinger called the study subjects to ask them what they thought of the task. Groups 1 and 3 responded that the task had been boring, while group 2 responded that it looked like fun.. Why did the group members who only received $ 1 say the task was fun?

    The researchers concluded that people experience dissonance between conflicting cognitions. By receiving only $ 1, the students were forced to change their thinking because they had no other justification ($ 1 was insufficient and produced cognitive dissonance).. However, those who received $ 20 had an external justification for their behavior and therefore experienced less dissonance.. This seems to indicate that if there is no external cause that justifies the behavior, it is easier to change beliefs or attitudes.

    Increase cognitive dissonance to catch a liar

    Another famous study in this line of research led her Anastasio Ovejero, And concluded that, regarding lying, “It should be understood that subjects generally live cognitively between their thought and their action and if for some reason they cannot be congruent, they will try not to speak. facts that generate dissonance, thus avoiding increasing it and they will seek to reorganize their ideas, values ​​and / or principles in order to be able to self-justify, obtained in this way that their set of ideas agree to each other and the tension is reduced “.

    When cognitive dissonance occurs, in addition to making active attempts to reduce it, the individual generally avoids situations and information that could cause them discomfort.

    An example of using cognitive dissonance to detect a liar

    One of the ways to catch a liar is to cause an increase in cognitive dissonance, thereby detecting signals that betray them. For example, an individual named Carlos, who had been unemployed for two years, started working as a salesperson for an electricity company. Carles is an honest person with values, however he has no choice but to bring home the money at the end of the month.

    When Carles goes to visit his customers, he has to sell them a product that he knows will eventually result in a loss of money for the buyer, which conflicts with their beliefs and values, leading to a loss of money for the buyer. cognitive dissonance. Carlos will have to justify himself internally and generate new ideas aimed at reducing the discomfort he may be feeling..

    The client, on the other hand, might observe a series of mixed signals if he presses Carlos enough to cause him to increase cognitive dissonance, as this would have an effect on his gestures, tone of voice, or affirmations. According to Festinger himself, “people feel uncomfortable when we simultaneously have conflicting beliefs or when our beliefs are not in harmony with what we are doing.”

    The psychologist, author of the book “Emotions Expressed, Emotions Overcome,” adds that due to cognitive dissonance, “discomfort is usually accompanied by feelings of guilt, anger, frustration or shame.”

    The classic example of smokers

    A classic example of cognitive dissonance is that of smokers. We all know that smoking can cause cancer, respiratory problems, chronic fatigue and even death. But, Why do people, knowing all these pernicious effects of smoke, still smoke?

    Knowing that smoking is so bad for your health but continuing to smoke produces a state of dissonance between two cognitions: “I must be healthy” and “smoking is harmful to my health”. But instead of quitting or feeling bad about smoking, smokers may look for self-justifications such as “what’s the point of living if you can’t enjoy life”.

    This example shows that we often reduce cognitive dissonance by distorting the information we receive. If we are smokers, we don’t pay as much attention to testing for the tobacco-cancer relationship. People don’t want to hear things that put them in conflict with their deepest beliefs and desires, even though in the same packet of tobacco there is a warning about the seriousness of the problem.

    Infidelity and cognitive dissonance

    Another clear example of cognitive dissonance is what happens to a person who has been unfaithful. Most people claim that they would not be unfaithful and know that they would not like to suffer in their flesh, but on many occasions they can. By committing the act of infidelity they usually justify themselves by saying that the fault lies with the other member of the couple (He no longer treats her the same, spends more time with his friends, etc.), because carrying the weight of having been unfaithful (thinking that infidelity is bad people) can cause a lot of pain.

    In fact, after a while, cognitive dissonance may worsen, and constantly see your partner may force you to confess, as it can get worse and worse. The internal struggle can become so desperate that attempts to justify themselves in the face of it can lead to serious emotional health issues. Cognitive dissonance, in these cases, can affect different areas of life, such as work, mutual friendships, etc. Confessing can become the only way to get rid of suffering.

    When cognitive dissonance occurs due to infidelity, the subject is motivated to reduce it because it produces great discomfort or anxiety. But when, for various reasons, it is not possible to change the situation (for example by not being able to act on the past), then the individual will try to change his cognitions or his appreciation of what he has done. The problem arises because by living with this person (his partner) and seeing him daily, guilt can end up “killing you inside”.

    Bibliographical references:

    • Beasley, RK; Joslyn, MR (2001). Cognitive dissonance and post-decision attitude change in six presidential elections. Political psychology. 22 (3): pages 521 to 540.
    • Chen, M. Keith; Risen, Jane L. (2010). “How It Affects and Reflects Preferences: Revisiting the Free Choice Paradigm.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 99 (4): pages 573 to 594.
    • Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive dissonance. American scientist. 207 (4): pages 93 to 106.

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