How do we make decisions? Are we always in control of the decisions we make or are there other factors beyond our conscious awareness coming into play?
Cognitive dissonance occurs when two conflicting thoughts are held simultaneously. This usually creates anxiety and feelings of discomfort. The aim of the brain is to reduce this sense of unease. The brain does this by rationalising away irrational behaviours and thoughts. For example, let’s say there is an employee of a company who dislikes his job but knows that it is a safe job. Disliking the job yet staying in the job creates anxiety and uncertainty since these are two conflicting beliefs. Therefore, the person may say to himself that he stayed in this job because it is worthwhile and he is networking with a good crowd. It is emotionally and psychologically too difficult to admit to oneself that one has made a mistake by choosing the job and not actually going for one’s dream job; therefore, the brain comes up with reasons as to why one stayed in the job. This person would also surround himself with others who support the view that the job is worthwhile. Therefore, this person’s cognitive dissonance is resolved.
Cognitive dissonance requires a lot of self-persuasion and even repression since one has to repress at least one of the conflicting beliefs. The result of this process tends to be illogical and irrational decision making with a veneer of coherent reasoning. This can create deeper levels of anxiety since the conflict is not actually resolved. Cognitive dissonance is also important in preserving our self-concept. As long as we keep rationalising away our bad choices, we can still believe ourselves to be intelligent, rational human beings with excellent decision making skills. For instance, if a person thinks they are very healthy but they smoke they will rationalise away the smoking behaviour by saying they don’t smoke that much or that they go to the gym every day so the occasional cigarette is ok. Therefore, this person has maintained their self-concept of being a healthy person, despite the fact that he/she smokes, by making excuses such as going to the gym. This reduces the anxiety that the two conflicting ideas present.
It is important to try to minimise the effects cognitive dissonance has on us or at least to realise when it is happening in order to make better, more informed decisions. Furthermore, the more important the decision, the more likely one is going to feel torn between alternatives. When making big decisions that could affect one’s life, it is important to understand one’s thinking process. If we could increase our awareness about our decision making process we would be able to make decisions more effectively. Although it is tempting to decrease the discrepancy between attitudes and behaviours by making excuses, it is important to take a step back and understand the mental process that is occurring. In order to make more meaningful decisions in life that truly resonate with your self-concept it’s time to stop rationalising away behaviours and start thinking rationally.
McLeod, S. A. (2014). Cognitive Dissonance. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html
TedxTalks. (Nov 24, 2010). TEDxCanberra – Ash Donaldson – Cognitive dissonance. Retrieved June 10th 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqONzcNbzh8
Brandt, M. (n.d.). How to Deal with Daunting Career Decisions. Career Minds. Retrieved June 10th 2016, from http://careerminds.com/blog/deal-with-career-decisions