Got Dissonance? 

How to lie to yourself (or grow as a person).

Posted Feb 17, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Robert Couse-Baker
Source: Robert Couse-Baker

The world was supposed to end on December 21, 1954. At least that’s what a small religious group called The Seekers firmly believed. But for psychologist Leon Festinger, the far more important date was December 22. He had infiltrated the cult to find out how its members would cope when the world went on as usual. Many gave up and went home. But many others stayed and become even more passionate advocates and recruiters for the group. 

What the cult members felt was something most of us experience on regularly, a psychological state that Festinger and his team dubbed ‘cognitive dissonance.’ Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when our beliefs or actions contradict one another. 

For example, perhaps you believe it’s important to tell the truth. Then a cop pulls you over for speeding. Before you know it, you’re telling her that your kid is in the hospital and you have to rush over to be by his side. The cop lets you off with a warning and a sympathetic smile. You don’t even have a kid. The cognitive dissonance sets in as soon as you drive off.

Now the question becomes: What do you do with the dissonance? Here are your options:

A. Change your actions. Drive at the speed limit and double down your efforts to be truthful from now on.

B. Change your beliefs. Tell yourself that a little white lie from time to time won’t hurt anyone. And, anyway, speed limits are just set to trap people into getting tickets. 

C. Do nothing. Sit with the discomfort. 

After 60 years of studying cognitive dissonance at work, researchers have found that Option B is a favorite. In essence, to resolve the discomfort of dissonance, we lie to ourselves, often without even realizing we’re doing it. 

Want to get even better at lying to yourself? 

1. Find people who think or act the way you do.

Dissonance loves company. Like the cult members who coped with the world not ending by recruiting more members who shared their views, you too can seek the comfort of an echo chamber. 

2. Minimize or trivialize your actions. 

If you believe in animal rights but also have bacon for breakfast, you’ll feel better if you tell yourself a couple of slices of bacon will hardly make any impact on the factory farming industry.  

3. Justify your actions.

If you see yourself as hardworking but happen to take four-hour lunch breaks at work, rest assured you are only doing what’s fair given how unjustly you’re paid by your company. 

4. Dull the dissonance.

If tips 1-3 don’t do the trick, you can always resort to distractions like binge-watching TV. Better yet, take advantage of emotional dulling agents like drugs and alcohol for a quick fix.

The good news is that you don’t have to pick just one technique. You can mix and match until you find the coping cocktail that’s right for you. 

But here’s the bad news: no amount of lying to yourself will make the dissonance dissipate completely. To rid yourself of the discomfort of that internal inconsistency, you have to first pick option C: Sit with the discomfort. Shine a light on the discrepancy between your actions and beliefs. Then, when you’re ready, start to change your actions or let your beliefs evolve. 

How can you use cognitive dissonance to grow as a person? 

1. Find people who think or act differently.

Read books, blogs, or listen to podcasts by people who hold opposing views. Follow folks on Facebook you disagree with. Next time you feel the urge to debate, ask three authentic questions first. For example, “What led you to that perspective?” “What do you think others don’t understand about this point of view?” “What’s most important to you about it?”

2. Maximize the impact of your actions.

Remind yourself that even small steps misaligned with your beliefs can have a big impact. Imagine that you are not alone. What if everyone did what you were doing? Would you be happy with the result? Imagine others are watching and learning from you. See yourself as a role model.

3. Take responsibility for your actions.

Recognize your power to make a difference. Even if it’s not your responsibility, choose to take responsibility anyway. Even if you didn’t create a problem, you can still be part of the solution.

4. Amplify the dissonance.

Best of all, when that cognitive dissonance hits, draw it out. See it as a tough but caring teacher here to show you something important about yourself. Ask yourself: “What do I truly believe?” “How do I want to see myself?” “How do I want others to see me?” “What steps can I take next?”

In writing about the cognitive dissonance of racism, clinician Resmaa Menakem makes a beautiful distinction between dirty pain and clean pain. Dirty pain is the pain of avoiding, hiding, and justifying. It is milder but can last a lifetime. Clean pain is the pain of facing a problem head-on whether it’s being honest with yourself, confessing to a wrong, asking for help, or making a hard decision. It is sharp and intense but, once we face it, we are healed. Just as the hell in Dante’s Inferno, when it comes to cognitive dissonance, “the only way out is through.”

This post features tips and research from the “Busting Makes Your Feel Good” episode of our podcast, Talk Psych to Me.


Want to learn more about overcoming cognitive dissonance? Check out the episode "Busting Makes Your Feel Good” on our podcast, Talk Psych to Me.

When Prophecy Fails by Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter (1956)

My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Menakem (2017)

"A challenge to human evolution—cognitive dissonance" by Perlovsky (2013)