How Cognitive Dissonance Relates to Relationships
The phenomenon of cognitive dissonance can account for just about anything.
Posted Dec 14, 2016
A man once asked for some of my chewing gum. When I refused him, he explained that he didn’t want it anyway ...
I’ll be the first to admit that the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ sounds complicated. This was certainly my impression when I first came across it. Although most people are probably fairly comfortable with the word ‘cognitive’ (or derivatives of ‘cognition’) by itself, the word ‘dissonance’ is not one that gets used a lot in everyday conversation. In fact, I could probably count on one hand the number of times that I’ve heard the word ‘dissonance’ mentioned by itself without any reference to cognition.
In a basic sense, cognitive dissonance just refers to a situation where someone’s behavior conflicts with their beliefs or attitudes. For example, when people smoke even though they know it’s pretty bad for them, they experience cognitive dissonance. Their behavior (smoking) is inconsistent with their beliefs (smoking is bad). The net effect is that they experience feelings of discomfort, and this generally results in the modification of either their attitude/belief or behavior so that they feel less discomfort.
A psychologist by the name of Leon Festinger came up with the idea of cognitive dissonance way back in the late 1950s, and did a heap of pioneering work in the field. Festinger suggested that we each have many different attitudes and beliefs about the world, and that we each behave in a number of different ways. We are all powerfully motivated to maintain cognitive consistency, and it is this force that can sometimes result in us behaving irrationally, and sometimes even maladaptively.
Because the feeling of dissonance is unpleasant and uncomfortable, we strive to reduce it. The reduction of dissonance can essentially be achieved in one of three ways: either we change our attitude(s)/belief(s)/behavior(s) (e.g. give up smoking), acquire new information (“research is yet to definitively prove that smoking causes lung cancer”), or reduce the importance of cognitions (beliefs/attitudes) (“it’s better to live a short life filled with pleasures like smoking than to live a long one devoid of any such joys”).
The formulation of the idea of cognitive dissonance arose from Festinger’s observation of a cult/UFO religion (‘The Seekers’) active in the early to mid 1950s. When their prophesied apocalypse failed to be realized, committed followers adopted an array of bizarre coping mechanisms. To deal with their disconfirmed expectancy, most of the ‘heavily invested members’ (many had left jobs/spouses and/or given away money and possessions) re-interpreted the evidence (that the world didn’t end) as proof that they were right all along (“the world was going to be destroyed, but was spared because of our faith”). In other words, rather than dealing with the dissonance and discomfort arising from being really committed to something and seeing clear evidence opposing it, devout members adjusted their beliefs so that they were more consistent with the evidence.
Members who weren’t so committed simply felt a bit foolish and chalked the whole thing up to experience. Festinger suggested that for someone to maintain or become more fervent about a belief after a disconfirmation, certain conditions must be met:
- The belief must be held with deep conviction
- The believer must have committed themselves to the belief (they must have taken some important action that is hard to undo)
- The belief has to be specific and concerned with the real world
- The believer must have social support (e.g. group membership)
- And the disconfirming evidence has to be obvious, undeniable, and acknowledged by the believer
The thing is, cognitive dissonance can occur in pretty much any area of life, and can be used to explain a lot of behavior, but is very common where someone’s beliefs (that are important to how they define themselves) conflict with how they behave.
Let’s consider a relationship.
Mary meets Jack (let’s say on a Tinder date or something) and they hit it off pretty much straight away. After dating for only a short time they move in together. Both are totally smitten with the other. Mary starts thinking to herself that Jack is ‘the one’. Everything in their relationship is going really well, and they’re both very happy.
At this point, they have been together six months, and lived together for most of that. Mary feels as though she knows Jack reasonably well. She feels as though she can kind of predict what Jack will and won’t do in some situations. Mary loves Jack and Jack loves Mary.
Then it happens.
One night Jack lashes out. He hits Mary on the cheek. It isn’t hard enough to bruise her, but it’s still very painful and distressing. Mary is hurt—physically, and emotionally. More than that, she’s confused: “Why did Jack do this?” She really thought, and still thinks, she knew him well.
Now Mary has a cognitive dilemma: on the one hand she really loves Jack and believes that he really loves her, but on the other hand, his behavior was horrible, and not what you would expect from someone who loves you. Mary experiences cognitive dissonance:
- She loves Jack (attitude A)
- She doesn’t love his behavior (attitude B)
Because the cognitive dissonance she experiences makes her feel uncomfortable, one of these attitudes has to change. To ‘solve’ the dissonance, the mind needs to make it so that the attitudes are consistent.
Essentially, Mary has a tough choice to make in order to rid herself of the uncomfortable dissonance. She can:
- Accept the behavior and rationalize staying in the relationship by convincing herself that there is some other reason for her staying (“my parents will be upset,” “Jack has plenty of money,” etc.).
- Accept the behavior, possibly rationalizing it somehow (“he was drunk/stressed”, he got carried away,” “he has redeeming qualities,” etc.). This can result in the modification of attitude B.
- End the relationship. She doesn’t love Jack’s behavior OR Jack.
Obviously people don’t always select one of the first two options, but it happens far too often.
Those who like you help you, and those who help you like you.
In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin describes a technique that he used to deal with the animosity of a rival legislator back in the 18th century. Upon hearing that his rival had a rare and valuable book in his personal library, Franklin asked to borrow it for a short time. His rival agreed, and Franklin returned the book a week or so later. Franklin says that when next they met, “he spoke to me with great civility, and ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends."
Benjamin Franklin essentially turned a foe into a friend and got an enemy to like him by having his enemy do him a favor.
The Ben Franklin effect relates closely to cognitive dissonance theory, and generally suggests that someone who does a favor for someone else is more likely to like them or do another favor, than if they had received a favour from them. So based on this story, if you want someone to like you it might be worth getting them to do you a favor (and not the other way round).
But beware here, the favor must be personal. Jecker and Landy (1969) had students participate in an intellectual contest where they were able to win money. Afterward, students were either:
- Approached by the researcher and asked to give the money back as his own funds (which he had been using for the experiment) were running low
- Approached by a secretary and asked to give the money back to the psychology department
- Not approached at all
Group 1 said they liked the researcher more than either groups 2 or 3. While an impersonal request decreases liking (group 2), a personal request increases it.
In a similar way, people tend to dislike their victims more after they have victimized them. It’s even easier to hate our victims if we de-humanize them. Committing wartime atrocities when you like and value your victims causes immense dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance can account for behavioral and attitudinal shifts in many different domains. Consider a man who regards himself as being environmentally responsible. Now imagine that he has just bought a new car which he later finds out has poor mileage. The inconsistency here is that: A) It’s important to the man to be environmentally conscious (attitude); and B) He is driving a car that isn’t environmentally friendly (behavior). In order to reduce the dissonance he can do a few things:
- He can sell the car (or perhaps upgrade to a more environmentally friendly model)
- He can reduce his emphasis on environmental responsibility (perhaps by reducing the impact of and his reliance on the car by using public transport/carpooling/walking/riding more)
Resolving cognitive dissonance typically involves justifying some behavior to yourself. For example:
- You put in a huge effort so that you can do something (e.g., go to college) and then find out that it’s pretty average when you get there. You reason that you actually love it, so all your effort was entirely justified.
- You don’t want to do the work/study that you should be doing so you procrastinate by watching TV. You convince yourself that this one more episode will refresh your mind and allow you to study and maintain focus for hours.
- You cheat on an exam even though you know cheating is wrong. You convince yourself that you only did it because the exam was really tough, and you’ll never do it again.
I could go on ad nauseam, but I won’t. The bottom line is that cognitive dissonance is everywhere, and can be used to explain a lot of different behaviors and attitudes.