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The Era Of Cognitive Dissonance

, June 21, 2023, 2 Comments

Cognitive dissonance as a concept intrigued me to the extent that I pursued my arduous research journey of 7 years on this topic. What is cognitive dissonance? According to Festinger (1957) cognitive dissonance theory states that a person is in a state of unrest if he/she is faced with cognitions that are not in consonance with their beliefs. My research study got me reading several interdisciplinary articles and papers on cognitive dissonance. I was overwhelmed by the amount of research on this topic. The beauty of cognitive dissonance is that it is omni- prevalent in day to day life and is the core of human motivation.

“He had very few doubts, and when the facts contradicted his views on life he shut his eyes in disapproval” -Hermann Hesse, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

The origin of cognitive dissonance theory enthralled me all the more. Festinger’s methodology of disconfirmation of a prophecy by one Mrs Keech that a great flood would end the world strengthened his arguments on dissonant beliefs. A group of people who believed the prophecy were even ready to leave the earth on a so-called alien ship.
From the academic background I come i.e. marketing generally cognitive dissonance is associated with negative outcomes, however in psychology cognitive dissonance may not always lead to negative outcomes. A cognitive discomfort can lead to a chain of critical thinking, introspection that might cause some good changes in a person.

Cognitive dissonance is all pervasive in today’s age thanks to the constant bombardment of information. Discontentment, regret and anxiety is a daily part of our lives due to the overwhelming choices we are presented with.

Based on my personal experiences and observations, discontentment due to purchase decisions was hardly seen in my parents or grandparents as they never scrutinized their purchase decisions. Or could I daresay the information dearth or ignorance kept them happy, reaffirming the adage “Ignorance is bliss”. My father’s replies to many of his decisions still ring in my ears “I did not have much of a choice”.

I have heard numerous acquaintances of mine crib about their decisions on purchases, marriage, job and so on. Has the ubiquity of time and extreme convenient lifestyles led to over thinking? If I were to follow a diet, there could be “n” number of influencers, vlogs either vying about the diet or purely rejecting it. If I were to watch a video about the diet, YouTube would recommend similar videos that might differ in opinion on the same subject, this unending flow of opinions could lead to indecisiveness. In my profession of teaching I have seen a lot of my students plunge into the ocean of indecisiveness, many of my students who wanted to pursue higher studies are still clueless and are pursuing random jobs and settling in for mediocrity. The huge amount of information and choices is leading to decision fatigue among many youngsters. Unlike the earlier days where a person first took a decision and then went in search of information, in the current age information overload is creating many decision moments. The higher the decision need, the more number of variables, more is the likelihood that some decisions end up dissonant to opinion belief. As a kid most of my decisions regarding food, clothing were taken by my parents, but now the scenario is different most of the kids make their own choices, they put in a lot of effort to make so many choices that they might fail to prioritize which decisions they have to spend more quality time.

cognitive-dissonance-marketexpress-inThe figure given above is an assumption or hypothesis that has to be tested. The figure tries to explain that when a person’s beliefs are not challenged to a great extent, he/she might be complacent and might lack the motivation for change or growth. However, when a person’s beliefs are challenged to an optimal level, he/she might experience cognitive dissonance. They might be motivated to change or grow in order to address their cognitive dissonance. They might seek information or feedback. However, in scenarios where individuals are bombarded with information or receive excessive feedback they might be overwhelmed by decision fatigue and might not be motivated to change or grow.

Cognitive dissonance can be mitigated or addressed in many ways like decision justification, changing behavior, trivialization and self-affirmation (Festinger, 1957), denial of responsibility (Gosling et al.,2006), distraction and forgetting (Zana & Aziza, 1976), attitude change (Cooper, 2007), adding more consonant cognitions (Cotton & Hieser, 1980), decision justification (Brehm,1956) and so on. On a broader level one can say either a person shuts himself from the dissonant beliefs or reaffirms his beliefs.

Many of the decisions in day to day life are taken on the go and are very impulsive. We do not ponder about the repercussions while taking the decisions, however there are many instances when the decisions can have negative repercussions. Apart from the fact that the current generation live a life of convenience and are spoilt for choice they also are stuck in the vicious cycle of overdose of positivity. In situations of decision fatigue we tend to justify our wrong doings positively as we cannot or do not have the bandwidth to retrospect and correct ourselves. This selective positivity helps in shutting down cognitive dissonance. With an overdose of positivity in every frame of life, one can easily convince ourselves that we are never wrong. And the culture of toxic positivity pushes you to always create positive self-esteem which can lead to irrational actions as you always want to think that you are not wrong, despite one performing immoral acts. Other easier ways of shutting down dissonance are denial of responsibility and trivialization and distraction which is extremely common in the current era. One could owe this behavior to the combination of decision fatigue and overdose of positivity.

In addition to the above, thanks to the exponential growth of ICT, the feedback on any decision taken can reach you at lightning speed. In the earlier days, there was a latency between the decision taken and feedback received so one would not be able to do much regarding the decision and would decide to “move on” rather be in a state of unrest. The problem is not just the duration within which we receive feedback it is also the frequency of feedback, thanks to whatsapp, Instagram and many other social media tools we receive feedback on almost all aspects of life which can be quite overwhelming.

Cognitive dissonance as a phenomenon has been confirmed through brain activity. Strong evidence points out the neural activity that is experienced in the anterior cingulate cortex in conflict monitoring in the context of cognitive dissonance (Harmon-Jones, 2004). With such strong supporting evidence cognitive dissonance is an undeniable part of our lives, but its repercussions depend on multiple factors, based on the choices one makes to reduce the same. The current era makes it difficult for all of us to overcome a dissonant situation. I strongly feel that we should not be driven by information overload. We should be able to discriminate our priorities and allocate our mind space and energy to things that matter the most.

References
https://www.opentextbooks.org.hk/ditatopic/16198
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press.
Gosling, Patrick & Denizeau, Maxime & Oberlé, Dominique. (2006). Denial of Responsibility: A New Mode of Dissonance Reduction.. Journal of personality and social psychology. 90. 722-33. 10.1037/0022-3514.90.5.722.
M.Zana and C.Aziza (1976), On the interaction of repression-sensitization and attention in resolving cognitive dissonance., Journal of Personality.
Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive dissonance: Fifty years of a classic theory. Sage Publications Ltd.
Cotton, J. L., & Hieser, R. A. (1980). Selective exposure to information and cognitive
dissonance. Journal of Research in Personality, 14(4), 518–527. doi:10.1016/0092-
6566(80)90009-4.

Brehm, J. W. (1956). Postdecision changes in the desirability of alternatives. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52(3), 384–389. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0041006

  • Shilpi Rai

    well-written and insightful article that effectively explores the complex and relevant topic of cognitive dissonance in the 21st century.

  • Jayshree wisme2325

    The battle with conflicting thoughts in today’s hyper-connected world is real.