It is normal that sometimes people face serious difficulty in reconciling their thoughts with the way they act This is a mental phenomenon which has been identified with the term cognitive dissonance. It is a process that occurs more frequently, especially when it comes to making important decisions.

It is a process whose operation is to try to choose between two or more options , but for this, multiple elements that are also part of the initial approach must be taken into account. Consequently, some people find it more difficult to reconcile these ideas, because they are contrary.

Next we describe how cognitive dissonance works, analyzing its characteristics and the theories that try to explain this mental phenomenon. In addition, some examples are used that allow us to understand it in a better way, to finally explain why it is developed.

What is cognitive dissonance?


Cognitive dissonance is a term used in social psychology to refer to the internal conflict that generates two thoughts that are opposed to each other. That is, it is a tension between cognitions that do not maintain the same goal or resolution. Consequently, the person experiencing this state of mind cannot be able to decide between the two options.

It is not only about thoughts, but also about behaviors that are contrary to the value or belief system . These same ones are contrary to the ideologies that are usually used as a guide, they even generate conflict in self-perception. This mental mechanism causes a state of emotional tension, patients who suffer from it cannot reconcile with them, becoming an important limitation.

The discomfort it generates is such that people often do not know how to deal with this situation. Different causes and influences , both external and internal, can trigger this pattern of thoughts. The new cognitions that are built from daily experiences can occasionally have these results, however for some people it turns out to be a more difficult process.

What are their characteristics?

The main characteristic of cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort associated with a state of “incoherence” and internal “confusion” . It is a mental conflict that occurs when we cannot reconcile ideas, behaviors, beliefs and values. This incompatibility between two opposing approaches creates discomfort in those who suffer it, consequently it is difficult to find a solution or a way out.

It is normal for new ideas or behaviors to be created that are intended to help alleviate this tension. However, for some people it really means that you are getting worse by adding these new items. They can also be used to avoid facing responsibilities or certain decisions , by including this information, dissonance would be increasing.

It is common that this process is always directly related to decision making. People use different strategies when they must carry out this process, however carrying it out can face serious difficulties as they do not know how to efficiently manage these contents. 

The main components of cognitive dissonance are described below. They are as follows:

  • Avoidance means not confronting the conflict that has started this process. People can adopt certain behaviors that allow them not to have contact or to think about situations, places, actions and people associated with the main problem.
  • The search for approval or self-convincing is used to try to reinforce a decision. This usually occurs at the end of the process in an attempt to ensure that the correct decision has been made, however it reflects how hard it is to ignore.
  • Comparison is common during this process as a guide in trying to make the right choice. It also serves as an excuse to justify actions or decisions that were not foreseeable at the beginning.

Theories that explain its operation

explain its operation

This psychological phenomenon is widely studied today, it has been possible to raise various theories regarding how it works and its origin. Until now, it has not been possible to select a common cause or reason that is present in most of these cases. That is to say, it cannot be specified exactly, because in each person it is generated for different reasons.

Some people have a perception of themselves and the world around them that is still under construction. This means that their choices and objectives are still influenced by numerous new cognitions and approaches, others are developed daily that do not necessarily share the same characteristics as the previous ones. Likewise, conflicts arise between needs and aspirations, normally people must decide or prioritize between elements that are contrary to each other.

The first known theory regarding cognitive dissonance was put forward by the social psychologist named Leon Festinger . The work of his authorship entitled ” A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance ” published in 1957 is the first record that is had. Within it is information obtained through various investigations, they concluded that most people experience a state of “internal incoherence.”

This internal incoherence usually cannot be corrected, it is the cause that later other cognitions are created; that can contribute to increasing discomfort or decreasing it instead. They can also be the result of a process of contradiction associated with dissociation , which arises from the attempt to avoid thinking about certain problems. This means that people can convince themselves that they are not as important as they really do.

The original theory that explains this mental phenomenon has faced significant criticism in recent years. Partly because it describes a process of abstraction , some consider it to be an ambiguous operation, the cognitive events of which could be explained in another way.

However, in contemporary psychology it continues to be relevant because it allows us to explain how various social processes work, where certain concepts and ideologies are in contradiction. So far it is the resource that is used the most to understand coherence and consonance, both are essential aspects of human thought.

The logic of human rationalization has been explained with new rhetorical postulates, such as those proposed by Daryl Bem and Frank Rosenblatt . Both defend the existence of empirical evidence that shows that one should focus on other legitimate paradigms that explain dissonance more clearly. Affective and cognitive components are taken into account that reflect the lack of coincidence between desire and reason.

Finally, some propose that cognitive dissonance functions as a psychological resource associated with moral conscience . It is applicable to those cases where it is a question of not giving greater importance to selfish decisions, they can simultaneously harm other people. In effect, it is an action that has the purpose of avoiding the feeling of guilt, however the dissonance or incoherence that it generates cannot be avoided.

Examples of specific cases

Some examples allow an easier understanding of how cognitive dissonance works. In the case of motivations, these generate a greater conflict because they can be contrary to reality. That is, people adopt behaviors and follow certain approaches that are in opposition to their ethical principles and value system . Consequently, they may not be able to fulfill their goals or desires, because they cannot reconcile these elements because they are contradictory.

This is a common situation within the realm of wars and other types of warfare. This is a good example of this type, because people in these situations will have to make complex decisions. Sometimes they must be guided by certain beliefs or ideologies to justify actions such as: killing an unknown person.

A similar phenomenon is that it occurs when people are forced to assume certain responsibilities, these are awarded for reasons beyond their own will. In social psychology it is considered that people can act evasively or instead take this situation very seriously. Various mental mechanisms are revealed in order to reconcile internal conflict with self-image. It is common for these individuals to express feelings of confusion or that they are not “clear on things.”

Why do people develop this behavior?

On a psychological level, this is a process that occurs more frequently than people really realize. It really is a mental mechanism that arises as a means used to try to relieve psychological tension, it will start unconsciously and can lead to maladaptive behaviors. This means that by not being properly managed, it can affect the autonomy of the person who suffers from it, causing negative repercussions on social relationships and self-esteem.

It could be said that it has a direct influence on opinions and the way of acting and feeling. But it can also be perceived as a useful process when it comes to confronting our own value systems and beliefs that have been adopted up to that point. Self-knowledge is important and should not be ignored, it will allow you to create a connection with your own identity in a more effective way.

Finally, cognitive dissonance changes behavior that can be positive or negative. It is important to note that it is often used to justify behavior and certain decisions . It is the process by which new ideas and arguments are created, they may be false, which contributes to conflict.

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Alexa Clark specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She has experience in listening and welcoming in Individual Therapy and Couples Therapy. It meets demands such as generalized anxiety, professional, love and family conflicts, stress, depression, sexual dysfunction, grief, and adolescents from 15 years of age. Over the years, She felt the need to conduct the psychotherapy sessions with subtlety since She understands that the psychologist acts as a facilitator of self-understanding and self-acceptance, valuing each person's respect, uniqueness, and acceptance.

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