Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance I

The concept of cognitive dissonance has been around for decades. There is a lot of research supporting the fact that it is a powerful force in our lives.

Let’s lay some foundational points for the thoughts I’ll share regarding cognitive dissonance.

Deciding (or choosing) between two or more paths is the essence of commitment. My favorite one liner about commitment is this: “Commitment is making the choice to give up other choices.” That says a lot about why commitment can be so hard in today’s world. We’re encouraged to hang onto everything while commitment feels like we are giving something up. That’s because we do give something up when we make a commitment. If we are not giving anything up we are not making a commitment. Commitment is deciding to go down path A or B, in a situation where one cannot do both—at least until cloning is widely available. (There’s some time left before commitment is irrelevant.)

Cognitive dissonance is a concept originally developed in the 1950s by social psychologist, Leon Festinger. The essence of Festinger’s idea was that we often feel internal conflict about who we are, how we see ourselves, and what we do. That is what cognitive dissonance is. Something is unsettled or not in sync in how we see ourselves and what we’re doing. In essence, when have cognitive dissonance, you feel at odds with your self,

It does not feel good to have dissonance and our minds are pretty good at finding ways to reduce it. In fact, study after study after study (a large number of them) document that cognitive dissonance happens and we’ll do what we can to reduce it.

Suppose, for example, you see yourself as very environmentally conscious. However, you also happen to drive a gigantic SUV that gets 12 miles to the gallon with a fair wind at its back. Your behavior of driving the big SUV and your beliefs about the environment are in conflict, and you’ll do something to reduce that internal conflict. You might get a Prius or you might become less environmentally concerned. You might rationalize that it would waste a lot of energy for Detroit to build you another car (but they would dearly love to build you one), so you decide it’s best for the environment to keep the SUV even if it burns through gas like my sons go through Oreos. (We’re talking about fuel, after all, right?)

Next time, I’m going to talk about how cognitive dissonance research helps explain some things about decisions and commitment. Soon.