These days, difficult decisions abound – Is it time to reopen? How do we do that safely? – and they’re made tougher when complicated by cognitive dissonance. Linda Henman explains how to reduce dissonance and discusses a sure-fire way to make the tough call.
In 1957, Leon Festinger introduced “cognitive dissonance,” a research-based theory that posits that internal psychological consistency helps us function in the real world. Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation that involves conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. The theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and behavior in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance).
People who experience internal inconsistency tend to become emotionally uncomfortable and motivated to reduce the cognitive dissonance — to decrease discomfort and restore balance. They tend to make changes to justify the stressful behavior, either by adding new parts to the cognition causing the psychological dissonance or by avoiding circumstances and contradictory information likely to increase the magnitude of the cognitive dissonance. The more important the decision, the more dissonance we experience since, obviously, important decisions have more serious consequences than trivial decisions.
For example, when people smoke (behavior), and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition), they find themselves in a state of cognitive dissonance. To restore balance, they must either discount the research about cancer-causing effects of smoking or quit smoking. Indeed, millions have quit smoking because of the cognitive dissonance they experienced when they learned of the harmful effects of smoking, but millions have not. They have chosen to live in a state of disharmony, which causes more stress, more dissonance and more disease. When inconsistencies exist between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.
Life is filled with decisions, and in general, decisions arouse dissonance. As millions of parents, especially in hard-hit states like Arizona, face decisions about schools reopening, cognitive dissonance is at an all-time high. Some have chosen to discount the advice of the CDC (“They exaggerate. The reporting is flawed. It won’t be that bad.”). Others believe the experts, but feel powerless to do anything other than capitulate to the decisions of those who choose to reopen (“I work from home but can’t homeschool my kids at the same time and can’t afford a private tutor. My kids want to be back in school with their friends. I don’t have childcare if I have to go to work.”).
Feelings of powerlessness contribute to stress, but ironically, they reduce dissonance. When others mandate a course of action, we’re off the hook. We may get angry, but we no longer feel the internal tug-of-war about what we should do. We quit maneuvering for a way to enjoy the advantages of the unchosen alternative while accepting the disadvantages of the chosen one, primarily because there is no good option for opening schools and business. There are just some options that don’t seem quite as bad as others.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t still work to reduce dissonance. We can change attitudes (“Not all students or employees will be in the building at the same time. We’ll require masks, etc.”), but most parents and employees won’t be in positions of power to make these decisions.
Another way to reduce dissonance is to increase the attractiveness of the chosen alternative and to decrease the attractiveness of the rejected one. This is referred to as “spreading apart the alternatives.” So, what happens when we don’t like either choice, but we have to make a decision? The same advice applies: Reduce discomfort by evaluating chosen options more favorably and evaluating unchosen options less favorably.
We can reduce dissonance in four ways:
- Revoke the decision (just refuse to make it).
- Dwell on the benefits of the chosen alternative.
- Stress the drawbacks of the unchosen option.
- Reduce the importance of the decision.
When facing decisions related to getting schools and businesses open, only options two and three will work, however.
Making decisions causes dissonance, especially if the chosen and unchosen alternates have similar drawbacks. However, hundreds of experiments have demonstrated that following a difficult decision, compared with an easy one, individuals change their attitudes to be more consistent with their decisions. That is, following a decision, individuals evaluate the chosen alternative more positively and the rejected alternative more negatively than they did before the decision.
My advice is to follow my dad’s advice about making decisions: Learn everything you can about your options, control what you can control, make the decision and then forget about it. Worry and guilt will only distract and terrorize you. But the steps we must take to reduce cognitive dissonance can serve as a springboard that fuels better decisions, more confidence and success — if we let it.