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Cognitive Dissonance as a Motivating Force
Valerie Davis-Rucker MS, MBA

Are you familiar with the Aesop’s fable entitled "The Fox and the Grapes?" It's where the term ‘sour grapes’ comes from, and is a common example that illustrates cognitive dissonance. After a few failed attempts to jump up and grab the grapes, the fox gives up, walks away with his nose in the air, and says to himself, “These grapes are sour, and if I had some I would not eat them”, convincing himself that he doesn’t want them after all. His act of retreating clashed with his knowledge that the grapes were tasty. By changing his attitude toward the grapes (sour versus tasty), he rationalized and provided an acceptable explanation for his behavior (giving up and retreating), which reduced his cognitive dissonance.

What do you do when you don’t get something (a job, for example) that you thought you really wanted and were excited about? How about convince yourself that you didn’t really want it anyway, that it probably wouldn’t have been the right fit, that you were overqualified and would have been bored, that it’s their loss, etc. That thought process is an example of cognitive dissonance (“I want the job”, and now that I can’t have it, “I don’t really want it after all”). Sound familiar?

Well, that exact situation just happened to me recently, when I didn’t get a job that I thought I wanted. Ironically, a few days before I got the news, I had attended a talk given by Dr. Elliot Aronson – a Social Psychologist, listed as one of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th Century. He had studied and worked with Dr. Leon Festinger, who developed the theory of Cognitive Dissonance in 1957. Interestingly, the way Aronson expanded on that theory by relating it to the self-concept is much of what I do as a coach – help people distinguish thoughts and beliefs from behaviors, being from doing, essence from survival, so they can feel more in alignment with their true authentic self.

So what is cognitive dissonance? According to Merriam-Webster, it means “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.” In other words, a feeling of disharmony or disingenuousness. Festinger’s theory says that when there is inconsistency between a belief and an action, there is an increase in dissonance, and because we don’t like to feel that, we tend to do one of three things: change our belief, change our action, or change our perception of the action (rationalize, justify, etc), in order to decrease the dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the distressing mental state where people feel they do things that don’t fit with what they know, or have opinions that don’t fit with other opinions they hold. And because we want our cognitions to be consonant, or consistent, this tension motivates us to change either our behavior or our belief in order to avoid a distressing feeling. The more important the issue and the greater the discrepancy between behavior and belief, the higher the magnitude of dissonance we’ll feel. Naturally, we’ll do whatever it takes to minimize or eliminate it. Much of this seems to occur at a subconscious level, so we might feel powerless to change it unless we find ways to notice it and bring more awareness to it. This is one way that coaching is helpful, because a coach can help us to better understand how we do this with ourselves.

I like how Aronson reformulated the theory (in 1969) by including a threat to the self-concept. He said that cognitive dissonance does not arise because people experience dissonance between conflicting cognitions. Rather, it occurs when people see their actions as conflicting with their normally positive view of themselves (i.e. if I agree to lie for $50, the dissonance will be not so much because of inconsistent cognitions that lying is bad and accepting money for lying is wrong, but because of how it makes me look to others and how it threatens my self-concept of being an honest and good person). Aronson said we aren’t rational animals; we are rationalizing animals who want to appear reasonable to ourselves. If dissonance exists, it’s because one’s behavior is inconsistent with one’s self-concept (an incongruence between what we do and who we are). An example might be a belief that you’re not a sell-out, while at the same time working in an unsatisfying job because it pays well.

The amount of dissonance one experiences is directly proportional to the effort one invests in the behavior. The fox might not think the grapes were sour if he spent the whole day jumping to get them. Attitudes follow behavior because of the effort we’ve committed. So naturally, if we put a lot of effort into something that doesn’t work out, we’re more likely to experience greater dissonance than if we didn’t, also partly because we don’t want to look foolish for exerting so much effort and then failing.

With my example of the recent job situation, I had put a lot into trying to make it work out a few months ago and was excited when they offered me the job, which made it all the more upsetting when they rescinded the offer the first time (because they brought back a previous employee instead). At that time, the thought of “I’m a failure” was inconsistent with the thought of “I’m smart, competent, likable and high achieving.” My cognitive dissonance was high, so I had to rationalize a lot to get over it and move on. However, this time, when I was told I’d be considered for the same job again, and then they told me I didn’t get it, again, I did not have anywhere near the same level of cognitive dissonance. This is partly because I didn’t put so much effort into it or place as much importance to it. Plus, I had time to reevaluate it and see that it really wasn’t the best role for me right now, so I didn’t have to rationalize as much. I had already convinced myself of everything I listed in the first paragraph, and time allowed me to reconnect to my positive self-concept. I believe that every rejection or obstacle builds our character and resilience, and makes us stronger to step into who and what we’re really meant to be. And it’s nice how they’re leaving things open for possible future collaboration, which is reassuring, because if I do reconnect with them, it would more likely be in a role that’s better suited to my strengths, which is better for both of us.

As a predictor of dissonance, Aronson’s fear of looking foolish seems to make sense. With smoking, for example, the thought, "I am increasing my risk of lung cancer" is dissonant with the self-related belief, "I am a smart, reasonable person who makes good decisions." Smoking is a great example of cognitive dissonance because it’s now accepted that cigarettes can cause lung cancer, heart disease, and other health problems, yet most people want to live a long, healthy life. In terms of the theory, the desire to live a long life is dissonant (inconsistent) with doing something that will most likely shorten one's life. The tension produced by these contradictory ideas can be reduced by denying the evidence of lung cancer (change belief), quitting smoking (change action), or justifying one's smoking (change perception of action). Smokers can rationalize their behavior by believing that few smokers become ill, that it only happens to heavy smokers, or that if smoking does not kill them, something else will. Although chemical addiction exists in addition to cognitive dissonance for existing smokers, new smokers may experience a simpler case of the latter.

As someone who works with teens to educate and support them around reducing or quitting smoking, whether it’s tobacco or marijuana, this is definitely something I encounter regularly. As a counselor and coach, I can help them see how their cognitive dissonance is having them rationalize or justify their behaviors, which can empower them to make choices that might be more in alignment with who they are, and who they want to be. It’s all about seeing how cognitive dissonance can be a powerful motivating force to either continue what you’re doing or making changes that will bring you closer to your goals. Whether you're a teen or adult who wants to reduce or quit smoking, or make any other behavioral changes, working with a coach can be a helpful and empowering experience.


Copyrighted. Valerie Davis-Rucke.  All rights reserved.

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