Why Do People Act Against Their Own Better Judgement?

Cognitive dissonance theory explains why people engage in irrational behaviour.

Posted Jun 09, 2020

maja7777/pixabay
Why do people act against their own better judgement?
Source: maja7777/pixabay

The other day, I passed what looked to be a 50-year-old woman in the street. She was fully equipped with single-use gloves and a futuristic-looking face mask, worn correctly to cover both nose and mouth. She was also making clear efforts to keep her distance from fellow pedestrians and shoppers. Her actions pointed to a strong concern for minimising health risks to herself and others during the unprecedented times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With UK scientists estimating the risk of dying from a coronavirus infection to fall between 0.5% and 1% (meaning that, on average, one infected person in a 100 will die from the virus), it certainly makes sense to wear protective equipment in public. This may even be the case for lower-risk populations, which include non-elderly caucasian women.

Hence, the woman in question appeared health-conscious and suitably “alert” in the context of the virus pandemic. Yet, just as I reached this conclusion, I caught sight of the woman’s shopping basket. It was filled with multi-packs of cigarettes.

Tobacco use is a well-known health threat and probably the single most avoidable cause of death worldwide. While specific death rates depend on many factors such as the number and types of cigarettes smoked and underlying health conditions, female smokers in their fifties face an average death risk of 6.9% over the next 10 years, meaning that approximately 7 out of 100 will not survive the decade to follow. This risk is almost twice as high as in non-smokers and mainly due to increased chances of developing cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and lung conditions.

Furthermore, tobacco use not only poses a sizeable threat to personal health and well-being, but the second-hand effects of smoking are also a danger to the entire population. Did you know that passive smoking is estimated to kill approximately 600,000 non-smokers every year? And smoking even appears to worsen the outcomes (e.g. symptom severity and progression) of COVID-19.

Hence, while the lady in the street was doing her bit to combat the comparatively smaller health threat associated with contracting coronavirus, she could have been on her way to smoking herself (and perhaps others) to an untimely death. This is an uncomfortable conclusion, not least because the situation demonstrates a striking conflict in logical thinking. The observed behaviours are incongruent and don’t seem to make sense: Why would someone adopt protective health behaviours in one area while endangering their life in another?

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Psychologists refer to this puzzling display of contradictory attitudes and behaviours as cognitive dissonance. Other examples may include climate activists failing to stick to recycling guidelines and animal welfare supporters continuing to eat meat on a daily basis.

The concept of cognitive dissonance was first proposed by Leon Festinger, who suggested that most people try to avoid internal states of inconsistency. Human decision-makers actively aim to reduce conflicting world views or contradictory behaviours in order to maintain a more logical, positive view of themselves. This, in turn, enhances their psychological comfort and mental well-being.

Festinger’s theoretical suggestions seem intuitively obvious, so why do people still continue to exhibit contradictory behaviours like those described above? While the most obvious strategy for resolving cognitive dissonance is to stop the contradictory behaviour, there are other ways of promoting more consistent self-perception. These may come into play in situations where behavioural change appears too difficult to achieve. For example, when faced with the undoubtedly difficult endeavour to stop smoking, health-conscious people may opt for alternative strategies to ease their mind.

Compensate for dissonance:

One strategy to cope with cognitive dissonance is to compensate for contradictory actions by engaging in additional, consonant ones. Smokers, for example, might take up a higher number of health-related behaviours to “cancel out” the negative effects of smoking. Such compensatory behaviours could include attending weekly yoga classes or upping their vegetable intake. Alternatively, individuals might decide to ease their discomfort about conflicting health attitudes with more congruous behaviours in other areas of life—for example when it comes to following beliefs about environmental protection.

Avoid information that increases dissonance:

Another common strategy is for people to avoid any information that increases their cognitive dissonance or reminds them of the existing conflict between their beliefs and actions. Heavy smokers, for example, frequently avoid all information regarding the risks associated with tobacco use and choose to ignore statistics about its detrimental health consequences.

Downplay the importance of existing beliefs:

Another way of decreasing dissonance is by downplaying the importance of existing attitudes. A smoker might convince herself that health is only one aspect of life and that other areas (e.g. happy relationships and a fulfilling job) matter just as much—if not more. Similarly, they might minimise the importance of engaging in healthier behaviours by adopting a fatalistic world view. For example, some smokers believe that their behaviour has little impact on eventual health outcomes, and that the development of certain illnesses (e.g. lung cancer) is beyond their control.

Change dissonant beliefs:

Finally, in the most extreme cases, individuals might resort to changing their existing beliefs to match the behaviour they struggle to change. Smokers might justify their behaviours by rationalising smoking as a stress-reducing habit and rejecting reports of tobacco-related health risks as examples of scare-mongering.

What Research Can Teach Us

Empirical research has confirmed the use of dissonance reducing strategies in tobacco addicts. Indeed, smokers were found to display higher levels of “unrealistic optimism” about the consequences of cigarette smoking. Additionally, they often report functional beliefs to justify their choices including statements about the beneficial effects of smoking on their concentration.

Interestingly, these health-related beliefs or attitudes do not appear to be fixed over time. Instead, individuals were found to creatively adapt beliefs across the life span to suit their respective situations and behaviours at the time. For example, following an unsuccessful attempt to quit smoking, many tobacco addicts increase their use of dissonance-reducing strategies to create a more favourable image of themselves.

Cognitive dissonance has a strong influence on people's decision making. To deter people from acting against their own better judgement, it can thus be helpful to actively promote uncomfortable perceptions of dissonance. In the example from the beginning, a useful strategy would be to highlight the smoker's contradictory behaviour through a direct comparison of tobacco and coronavirus risks. The use of graphic illustrations, which showcase irrationality more powerfully, could help.