Cognitive Dissonance: The Exploration of the Troubled Self
University and early adulthood in general are a time for exploration. This could take the form of travel, intellectual exploration, finding a new genre of music you like, or even discovering that you just so happen to have a burning passion for mid-12th century gothic architecture. No matter what form it takes, this exploratory phase is crucial in personal development and ultimately, through our beliefs and values, forms who we are.
One thing to note, however, about this period of discovery is that, more often than not, what we think and what we do are in harmony. For example, if you were to find that travel is something you thoroughly enjoy, you most likely would not hold the opinion that travel is a waste of money, is dangerous, or pointless… But what if you did? This is what can happen with many new experiences in our young adult lives and also where the concept of “cognitive dissonance” comes in.
Cognitive dissonance, first discovered by Leon Festinger and discussed in his book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), is a state of mental discomfort caused by the simultaneous holding of two or more contradictory thoughts, beliefs, or values. The discomfort comes about when an existing belief held by an individual is contradicted by new evidence perceived by that individual. This evidence could be an undisputed fact or even actions performed by the individual that clash with his or her existing beliefs, thoughts, and/or values.
A common example right now might be those who are trying marijuana for the first time, especially now that it has been legalized. Let’s suppose that a given individual, prior to trying marijuana for the first time, had held negative opinions about the drug. They might have thought that it was for those with a low moral standard who were careless with their bodies, and ultimately, for those who are distinct from that which the individual considers themselves to be. However, when this individual does try marijuana for the first time, they find that they quite like it. The individual, at this point, is susceptible to a bout of cognitive dissonance. Why would they like marijuana if it’s such a terrible thing for such terrible people? Why would they like it if it’s for people with characteristics they consider to be so far removed from their own? As long as they have this contradictory overlap of experience and belief, the individual is experiencing cognitive dissonance.
As you can imagine, having this inconsistency can be quite uncomfortable. For many, it can cause them to question their identity and image of self, both of which are founded on beliefs, thoughts, and values that have now been shaken. So, what is one to do when cognitively dissonant? How does one flee from this bizarre mental state? There are several answers, but they all have something in common: something’s gotta’ give.
The first option is changing the dissonant behaviour, assuming that one of the dissonant elements is a behaviour. If we use the marijuana example, this would mean not consuming it anymore and allowing the original perceptions about cannabis to prevail. The second option, again, when one of the elements is a behaviour, is changing the dissonant thoughts, beliefs, and/or values to create a consonant relationship. This would mean, for the purposes of our example, changing the individual’s perceptions about marijuana and therefore no longer thinking that it’s only for people unlike themselves. The third and least drastic option is to minimise the importance of the entire ordeal. This is sort of an incomplete solution in that it doesn’t really make the dissonance consonant; it just kind of sets the issue aside. This is the case where the individual in our example would continue to hold their negative opinions on marijuana use but continue to consume it anyway because the matter as a whole isn’t really that big a deal. This often happens when people present long-term cigarette smokers with evidence that smoking causes several serious health complications, only to merit a live-for-today-type response. They recognize that the physical harm is very much present, but choose to minimise its importance. Which of these solutions to use really depends on the situation at hand. If we’re talking about your guilty pleasure of fangirling over One Direction, taking the situation with a grain of salt and minimising the importance of the matter may be the way to go. If, on the other hand, we’re talking about your decision on whether to get an abortion or not, one of the first two methods may be more appropriate. As with so many other things, it all depends on the context of the matter.
Cognitive dissonance is a big part of personal growth and getting out of your comfort zone. When it plays this role, I often like to think of it as a transitionary period between my current self and my future self. It can, however, also prevent us from making potentially dangerous decisions. So how is one to know? When is cognitive dissonance a warning sign? When is it simply a growing pain? When we’re in this stage of our lives as students and as young adults making and forming often character-defining decisions and opinions, the ability to discern between and make decisions based on these two functions of cognitive dissonance is arguably more important than ever. How you prioritize external information and your personal beliefs is really up to you. Its product is how you’ll experience the world, how the world will experience you, and ultimately how your life will come to form itself. The world we’re in is a highly subjective place—question it.