Have You Ever?
When you have a crush on someone, you typically hope that this person likes you back and that you’ll eventually end up dating. Let’s say that you sent a friend to sneakily ask around whether your crush is interested in you as well, and the answer is no. Obviously, you’re disappointed - the fantasy in your head no longer lines up with reality. How do you deal with this rejection?
Psychologically speaking, when you realize that the fantasy of your crush liking you back is contradicted by reality, you experience “cognitive dissonance,” or mental discomfort. Humans are the most comfortable when their internal beliefs and the external reality of the world are consistent with each other. One way to return to a “comfortable” state of mind is to change either the internal belief or the external reality so that the two match up once again. In this case, you need to either convince yourself that you never had feelings for your crush in the first place, or you somehow brew up a love potion for your crush so that they’ll ask you out.
Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort that arises when a personal belief, thought, or hope is directly contradicted by hard facts. There are 3 main ways to get rid of that discomfort: 1) change either the internal belief or the external reality, 2) logically justify why belief and reality don’t currently match up, and 3) ignore all facts that contradict your beliefs.
A famous experiment was conducted by Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith in 1954 that brought cognitive dissonance to the attention of all psychologists. In this experiment, Festinger and Carlsmith took a sample of 71 university students and asked all of them to complete a bunch of simple yet boring, repetitive tasks. After the students finished, the researchers requested that they talk to the next group of participants, introduce the experiment, and make it sound really fun and interesting. Secretly, the researchers split the original sample group in two: they told half the students that they would be paid $1 each to talk to the new participants, and they told the other half that they would be paid $20 each. Almost all the original participants agreed to do the job. However, the researchers noticed that the participants who were paid $1 described the experiment tasks as significantly more exciting and enjoyable than the participants who were paid $20.
What’s the reason for this difference? Well, all the original participants in the experiment thought that the experiment tasks were boring, and since lying about the tasks being fun directly opposes their beliefs, this action would activate their cognitive dissonance. Those who were paid $20 to lie resolve their cognitive dissonance by justifying that the monetary compensation is a good enough reason to lie. However, for those who were paid $1, the monetary compensation is not enough to justify their lying. Thus, to solve their cognitive dissonance, they had to change their internal beliefs instead to fit the lie: they made themselves believe that the experiment was actually really fun, and thus, their “lies” were especially enthusiastic.
Cognitive dissonance is helpful because it alerts you when your beliefs don’t line up with the actions you take in reality. However, the way in which you choose to resolve that mental discomfort can be potentially harmful to yourself or others around you. For instance, many people experience cognitive dissonance when indulging in addictive behaviors like smoking. Most smokers know that smoking is a major cause of lung cancer and that they should not smoke - so why do they do it anyway? They might be justifying to themselves that they’re only smoking once a day so it’s not that damaging, or they might be completely ignoring all scientific evidence that smoking is harmful.
Cognitive dissonance also occurs when a person has racist beliefs that other races of people are inferior to their own. Many racists deal with this cognitive dissonance by refusing to accept any new information that would debunk their idea of one race being superior to all others. As such, they stay stuck in their own prejudiced beliefs.
The most important takeaway is that whenever you experience cognitive dissonance, try to identify which personal belief clashes with the reality of the world, and really think about whether your way of thought is problematic and needs change.