by Joshua Am 4. June 2021

Living with contradictions

What happens when we experience contradictions in our perceptions, attitudes, needs, assumptions or behaviour? Leon Festinger describes in his theory of cognitive dissonance how we resolve unpleasant contradictions.

In our everyday life we often experience situations where a conflict arises between our attitudes and our behaviour. We then experience an uncomfortable feeling that can even lead us to a lasting change of our attitudes and our behaviour. To experience consistency in a world full of contradictions, we often use irrational justifications and self-manipulations.

Leon Festinger1 (1957) investigated this fact when he observed a cult whose followers believed that the earth would be destroyed by a flood. When the earth was then surprisingly not destroyed after all, a contradiction arose between their beliefs and reality. The sincere followers now resolved the contradiction by believing that the earth was spared because of their faithful behaviour. In another case, the non-occurrence of the end of the world was blamed on an error in the calculation of the date.

How such justifications and attitude changes occur even in more ordinary situations is explained by the theory of cognitive dissonance2. The best-known example of this are smokers who know that smoking can cause cancer. The desire to smoke and the knowledge that smoking can lead to illness and a shorter life creates cognitive dissonance. I’m sure you’ve heard many interesting reasons why smoking is still a great thing

However, there are very specific moments when we all experience cognitive dissonance.

What causes cognitive dissonance?

Essentially, there are three options:

  • Acting according to social conventions: When we publicly feel compelled to act differently than we actually want to, an inner contradiction arises. To resolve it, we are often willing to change our attitude towards the behaviour. We then find a behaviour that we previously rejected to be appropriate.
  • Making decisions: Whenever we have to make a choice, we experience a dissonance between our choice and the thought of having made a wrong choice. Usually, we then change our attitudes so that we make our choice something better than it was before.
  • High effort: When we have already invested a lot to achieve something, we get into an inner conflict whether to stop or to continue - we have to justify the effort we have made so far. To justify the previous effort, we then often adjust the value of the goal upwards.

It should be noted that all these changes in attitude usually happen unconsciously. However, by knowing this theory, you can increase your sensitivity to it and observe it in your life.

How can dissonance be reduced?

In his theory, Festinger has shown three ways in which we can reduce cognitive dissonance:

  • We change one or more attitudes or aspects of our behaviour.
  • We diminish the importance of our attitudes or behaviour.
  • We add new attitudes.

We cannot always change our behaviour to reduce dissonance. In other cases, it is obvious that we then have to change something in our attitudes to reduce dissonance. This can even have lasting long-term consequences.

In positive cases, studies have shown that prejudices can be reduced or addictions can be reduced. However, attitude changes can also cause disadvantages. This is particularly relevant when the dissonance arises because someone questions our self-concept or we lie to ourselves to justify our behaviour.

Paying attention to ourselves helps to become self-aware and to discover contradictions between our attitude and our behaviour. With awareness, we can then do our best to live in harmony with our subjective truth. Although this may even lead to more uncomfortable feelings in the short term, in the long term it is the only way to live truthfully.

Observe yourself in the next time and experience how you deal with contradictions in your experience.

  1. Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford. ↩︎

  2. Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., Akert, R. M., & Sommers, S. (2016). Social psychogy (9th ed.). Boston: Pearson. ↩︎

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