This paper posits that cognitive dissonance theory is an important theory that can be used to explain people’s reactions, misgivings, emotional reactions and evolution. Based on the concept of self-image by Festinger and Carlsmith (1959), and the theory of cognitive dissonance (CD) by Leon Festinger (1957), the paper seeks to demonstrate that cognitive dissonance can explain self-justification. To offer direction for future research, it is important to determine if CD can contribute to discomfort especially in case where one is offered options that both elicit string emotional reaction and one has to make a decision.
The theory of cognitive dissonance (CD)
The theory of cognitive dissonance argues that one can only experience discomfort if they hold conflicting elements of cognition or knowledge. For example, whenever the relationship amongst these cognitions is in conflict, human emotions change. However, when an individual is holding two or more conflicting cognitions, they experience cognitive dissonance. In such a case, they are likely to engage in dissonance reduction. In the process of cognitive reduction, people tend to balance the conflicting elements through either lowering the value or importance of one of the dissonance. Dissonance in this case includes ideas, beliefs, values, or even emotional reactions. Additionally, a person may engage in dissonance reduction by replacing one of the dissonant elements. Finally, cognitive reduction can be achieved by only adding one or more consonant elements. One of the key examples given is the irrational behaviors of man that may sometimes be termed as destructive (Alfnes, Yue, &, Jensen (2010, pp. 147–163).
From personal experience, I know that whenever I feel psychologically uncomfortable, I realize I am switching off more often. When friends start bothering me, I simply switch of my phone an try to make myself busy watching a video or even sleeping it off to ensure that I shut off my connection to the people who make me feel inferior or even those I consider stubborn. What I did not know is that I was trying to gain internal consistency (achieving consonance) and reducing dissonance. However, my motivation is not always to correct the situation, but just to try to avoid it only to realize that I did not do much in terms of solving the dissonance. I realize the cognitive dissonance theory is not a permanent solution to psychological discomfort. Additionally, avoiding the information or element that increases dissonance can also be the best solution especially when once belief is firm on the information
How the theory of cognitive dissonance relates to the concept of self-image.
Self-image refers to the mental image one has about himself or herself. Discourses over the relationship between Cognitive dissonance and self-image have for long been the most common debate amongst the psychologist. However, considering the fact that self image is mainly affected by parental influences, group notion, friends, as well as the media, it is clear that cognitive dissonance is mainly about self justification and One is likely to justify his behaviors based on what he thinks about himself. If one perceives himself as important, he is likely to have a unique mindset and even values such that any person who tries to belittle him, or make him feel inferior is a threat to his self-image. Therefore, values that are inconsistent with his self image causes cognitive dissonance. Differences in religious positions can also cause cognitive dissonance because there are some religions that consider themselves superior. This can cause tension between people of different background because they consider "others" less holy but consider themselves holier than thou.
I have seen several people trying to justify their emotional outburst saying their friends were attacking them indirectly. These emotional outbursts occur when one is trying to deny the negative feedbacks from friends and families about their image, behaviors, and emotions.
While people are likely to engage internal self-justification by changing their attitude in order to overcome the negative feedbacks, it has become clear that internal self-justification strategies such as denial or trivialization of the negative feedbacks are realistic in the end as it is manageable and does not affect the community around one. However, external self-justification may not be caused by hedonistic dissonance, but has clearly shown that excuses and engaging in irresponsible behaviors have terrible consequences. When people demonstrate their lack of self control, it becomes clear that they are experiencing dissonance and are most likely trying to correct their self image but in a wrong way (Jones, Amodio, &, Jones, 2009, pp. 119–166).
How do evolution and the brain contribute to cognitive dissonance theory?
According to Gilovich, Keltner, & Nisbett, (2006, pp. 1255-1266)Cognitive dissonance is a form of evolutionary adaption whereby people tend to change their behaviors (cognitive reductions) based on the changes in the environments. For example, when one’s expectations are high and the environment is not conductive, people tend to change their perceptions in order to fit into the new environment. Personally, I have been forced to change my beliefs and goals in life based on the difficulties I experience and the environment in which I find myself. However, Perlovsky, (2013) argues that the accumulation of knowledge is the hallmark of evolution such that as one acquires new knowledge that invalidates or modifies the previous knowledge, one evolves. Therefore, evolutions contribute to cognitive dissonance, but cognitive dissonance does not contribute to evolution.
The brain contributes to cognitive dissonance because the brain controls emotions. The part of the brain responsible for controlling human emotion is the limbic system. Additionally, the limbic system especially the neurons in the hippocampus also help in recognizing human emotion such as fear, and anger and control the heart. Therefore, the limbic system (the brain) contributes to cognitive dissonance and cognitive consonance by moderating how one reacts to consonance. This paper however is limited in scope, as it does not discuss how CD can contribute to emotional discomfort.
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.
Gilovich, T., Keltner, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (2006). Social Psychology. New York: Norton & Company.
Critcher, C. R., & Gilovich, T. (2010). Inferring attitudes from mindwandering. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(9), 1255-1266
Perlovsky, L. (2013). A challenge to human evolution—cognitive dissonance. Frontiers in Psychology, 4.
Alfnes F., Yue C., Jensen H. H. (2010). Cognitive dissonance as a means of reducing hypothetical bias. Eur. Rev. Agric. Econ. 37, 147–163.
Harmon-Jones E., Amodio D. M., Harmon-Jones C. (2009). Action-based model of dissonance: a review, integration, and expansion of conceptions of cognitive conflict, in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 41, ed Zanna M. P., editor. (Burlington, MA: Academic Press; ), 119–166.