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Episode
131

Cognitive Dissonance

Feb 9, 2021
How Stuff Works
-
14
minutes
Psychology
Health
Consumption
Philosophy
The Human Body

Why do we sometimes believe one thing and act in a way that is in complete contradiction to our beliefs?

Cognitive Dissonance is the theory about why we do this, how we manage different beliefs, and the effect this has on us.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Cognitive Dissonance, the idea that you can believe one thing, but do something that is in complete contradiction to your beliefs.

[00:00:34] We’ll talk about what cognitive dissonance actually is, and about how and when the idea was first proposed.

[00:00:42] Then we’ll then move on to talk about some of the actions that people take when they have cognitive dissonance, how they try to overcome these contradictions.

[00:00:52] And we’ll end by talking about what you can actually do about this, and how psychologists suggest people can get over this inconsistency between what they believe to be right, and what they actually do.

[00:01:06] This is actually a request from a member from France, a great guy called Thierry. 

[00:01:11] So, Thierry, I hope you enjoy it.

[00:01:15] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:18] I remember being told as a kid that our brains are infinitely more powerful than the most powerful computer in the world. 

[00:01:26] There’s probably a little bit of debate about whether that is still true, but the idea really stuck with me

[00:01:34] Our brains contain an average of 86 billion neurons, and our capacity for reasoned, independent thought is why we, humans, have evolved to be the most powerful species on the planet.

[00:01:48] But our brains aren’t perfect.

[00:01:51] The imperfection we are talking about today is cognitive dissonance, the idea that we can know something, and behave in a way that is in complete contradiction to our knowledge.

[00:02:04] You might think that this sounds strange. 

[00:02:08] Rational thinking means processing information and using that to make a rational, sensible decision.

[00:02:16] If you need to cross a road, you look to see whether a car is coming. 

[00:02:21] If there is no car coming, you take on that information and choose to cross the road. If you see a car coming, you stay where you are, because, well, it would be irrational to walk into the road if you might be hit by a car.

[00:02:36] Normally our brains are pretty good at processing this sort of information. Indeed, with the example of walking into the road, it’s almost subconscious

[00:02:46] You don’t have to actively think every time you cross a road, you just look and the decision is taken almost in the background.

[00:02:54] But, it doesn’t always work this way. 

[00:02:57] Our brains can hold a piece of information about something, but we behave in a way that is in contradiction to this information.

[00:03:06]This is called cognitive dissonance.

[00:03:09] A classic example might be someone who knows that smoking is bad for them, that there is evidence that it causes all sorts of diseases, but they do it anyway.

[00:03:21] Or someone who knows that flying on aeroplanes is damaging to the environment and yet jets off for weekends away twice a month.

[00:03:29] Or someone who is on a diet, and they decide to treat themselves to a large burger and chips just as a treat, just this once.

[00:03:40] In all of these cases, the person acts in a way that is contradictory to knowledge that they believe to be true. 

[00:03:48] Of course, people knowing one thing but behaving in a contradictory way is nothing new, but the label of cognitive dissonance, and the study of this particular behaviour was first proposed in 1957 by the American social psychologist Leon Festinger.

[00:04:08] Festinger observed this behaviour all around him, perhaps even in himself, and argued that human beings try to be as consistent as possible in their lives, but often find that there is inconsistency.

[00:04:25] This inconsistency, Festinger argued, often causes physical discomfort, it often makes you feel physically ill when you do it.

[00:04:35] Until relatively recently I needed to fly very often for work. 

[00:04:39] I would fly from Malta to London twice a month, so that’s an average of about 12 hours flying every month. 

[00:04:47] But I am also very aware of the environmental impact of flying. 

[00:04:52] I know that flying spews carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that flying less is an efficient way of lowering your carbon footprint.

[00:05:01] Yet I still did it.

[00:05:03] Every time I got on a flight I felt a little bit physically ill. I wasn’t afraid of flying, but it was this conflict between what I believed and what I did that was causing me physical discomfort.

[00:05:17] If I didn’t know, or didn’t believe, that flying had a negative impact on the environment, no doubt I wouldn't have felt this way.

[00:05:27] 50 years ago I’m sure people didn’t, and if you don’t believe in the environmental impact of flying I’m sure you don't feel this way either.

[00:05:37] Festinger, the psychologist who originally proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance noticed that humans feel different levels of discomfort, depending on two factors.

[00:05:49] Firstly, how important you feel your belief to be. 

[00:05:53] With my flight example, someone who was an environmental activist would evidently feel different about flying to someone who had watched a few documentaries and knew in the back of their mind that flying was bad for the environment.

[00:06:08] And the second factor is the number of inconsistent thoughts you have. 

[00:06:15] Let’s take the example of someone who is offered alcohol, but drinking alcohol is against their religion and in addition to that, they know that alcohol has negative health consequences, and they know that they need to drive a car later on that evening and that driving while drinking alcohol is dangerous. 

[00:06:33] That’s a lot of reasons to not drink alcohol, a lot more than someone who, for example, was aware of the long term health consequences of drinking alcohol but it wasn’t against their religion and they didn’t need to drive.

[00:06:46] Festinger noticed that the level of cognitive dissonance, based on the two factors I’ve mentioned, led to differing levels of physical discomfort.

[00:06:58] So, the person in our first example would feel a lot more discomfort than the person in our second example.

[00:07:05] This might sound obvious, but the point is that cognitive dissonance isn’t black and white, it exists in varying degrees.

[00:07:14] Where it starts to get even more interesting is what Festinger noticed people do to try to avoid these feelings of discomfort.

[00:07:23] Nobody likes feeling uncomfortable, and when you do feel uncomfortable you take actions to avoid these feelings.

[00:07:32] Festinger proposed that humans have four ways of dealing with this discomfort.

[00:07:38] Firstly, you can change your behaviour. 

[00:07:41] You can say, right, I know this is bad, and I’m going to stop doing it. With the classic example of smoking, you would stop smoking.

[00:07:51] Secondly, you can justify your behaviour to make it fit the knowledge that you have. With our example of someone who smokes, that person might say “yes, I know smoking is bad for me, but I’m a vegetarian and I exercise 3 times a week - smoking is my only vice, I’m otherwise really healthy”.

[00:08:13] Thirdly, you can justify the behaviour by adding new behaviours, you can do something that you tell yourself compensates for the behaviour. Going back to our smoker, you can say “I’m going to quit drinking, or I’ll start going to the gym”. 

[00:08:31] This doesn’t change the fact that you know that smoking is bad, but you justify it by doing other things that you tell yourself reduce its impact.

[00:08:42] And finally, you can either ignore or deny any information that is contradictory to your actions. Our smoker might say “well, there isn’t conclusive evidence that smoking causes lung cancer, there are lots of other factors and I just don’t believe it’s as bad as people say it is”.

[00:09:00] This fourth action is worth spending some more time discussing, because it leads to something called confirmation bias. 

[00:09:09] This is the idea that we tend to only believe information that confirms something that we already believe to be true.

[00:09:17] Instead of approaching life from the perspective of, here’s the evidence, now what does this mean is true, it’s often tempting to approach things from the other way around, thinking ‘this is what I believe to be true’, now I’m going to surround myself with evidence that supports my belief.

[00:09:36] In the era of social media, where you can surround yourself with people who think in exactly the same way as you, believe similar things, and consume the same kind of content, this is easier than ever to do.

[00:09:50] And the worst thing is that we normally don’t even know that we’re doing it - it’s just done ‘for us’ because platforms such as Facebook and Instagram show us content that we are more likely to believe is true, so we engage with it and stay on these platforms for longer, further reinforcing the beliefs that we already had.

[00:10:12] So, those are the four ways that Festinger proposed people deal with their cognitive dissonance - they either change their behaviour, they justify it, they add new behaviours, or they ignore it altogether.

[00:10:28] Cognitive dissonance, Festinger said, doesn't just occur for actions you take now, it also happens when you consider an action you took in the past.

[00:10:39] It can be uncomfortable to feel like a decision you took in the past was incorrect, and people often justify their past decisions despite the fact that they are inconsistent with their current beliefs.

[00:10:53] An obvious example here is voting, and political elections.

[00:10:59] It’s very common for people to defend the actions of a politician that they voted for even if those actions are inconsistent with their current beliefs.

[00:11:10] Being wrong is an uncomfortable feeling for most people, and one way of reducing this discomfort, and minimising the impact of your decision is by defending the actions that you feel you had an impact in causing.

[00:11:26] I should stress that Festinger’s theory of Cognitive Dissonance doesn’t suggest that people are any less or more intelligent if they have instances in their life of cognitive dissonance. 

[00:11:38] Indeed, he proposed it as an inherently human flaw, something that we all are guilty of doing.

[00:11:46] The most common example used for cognitive dissonance is smoking, because over a billion people do it, and the vast majority of those people know that smoking isn’t good for them.

[00:11:57] But smokers aren’t of any higher or lower intelligence than anyone else, and if you smoke this is by no means a criticism. 

[00:12:06] It is just that it is the world’s most evident example of cognitive dissonance, and one that is easy to recognise. 

[00:12:14] So, what can we do about this?

[00:12:16] Is cognitive dissonance by default bad? 

[00:12:20] Well, it might be uncomfortable, especially if the inconsistency is either very strong or there are several inconsistencies.

[00:12:29] And while the simple answer might be to just to stop engaging in the behaviour, for most people this isn’t always realistic. 

[00:12:38] We are only human, after all.

[00:12:42] Most psychologists suggest that key to overcoming this dissonance, and making better, more rational decisions is to become more aware of these inconsistencies, to not try to fight them, and certainly not to seek confirmation bias. 

[00:13:00] Instead, understand that your decision making process is often imperfect, that we all have these perfectly human flaws, these inbuilt biases, and that we should evaluate every decision based on the evidence in front of us, rather than what we want to believe, and it is by doing this that you will have the best chance of making more rational, better decisions.

[00:13:27]And that is certainly something that we can all aspire to.

[00:13:33] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Cognitive Dissonance, the inconsistency between what we believe and what we do.

[00:13:41] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:13:45] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:13:49] I’m not asking for examples of inconsistencies from your life, but I would love to know what you think about this idea. 

[00:13:56] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:14:06] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:14:12] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a memberUpgrade to Learner membership
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Cognitive Dissonance, the idea that you can believe one thing, but do something that is in complete contradiction to your beliefs.

[00:00:34] We’ll talk about what cognitive dissonance actually is, and about how and when the idea was first proposed.

[00:00:42] Then we’ll then move on to talk about some of the actions that people take when they have cognitive dissonance, how they try to overcome these contradictions.

[00:00:52] And we’ll end by talking about what you can actually do about this, and how psychologists suggest people can get over this inconsistency between what they believe to be right, and what they actually do.

[00:01:06] This is actually a request from a member from France, a great guy called Thierry. 

[00:01:11] So, Thierry, I hope you enjoy it.

[00:01:15] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:18] I remember being told as a kid that our brains are infinitely more powerful than the most powerful computer in the world. 

[00:01:26] There’s probably a little bit of debate about whether that is still true, but the idea really stuck with me

[00:01:34] Our brains contain an average of 86 billion neurons, and our capacity for reasoned, independent thought is why we, humans, have evolved to be the most powerful species on the planet.

[00:01:48] But our brains aren’t perfect.

[00:01:51] The imperfection we are talking about today is cognitive dissonance, the idea that we can know something, and behave in a way that is in complete contradiction to our knowledge.

[00:02:04] You might think that this sounds strange. 

[00:02:08] Rational thinking means processing information and using that to make a rational, sensible decision.

[00:02:16] If you need to cross a road, you look to see whether a car is coming. 

[00:02:21] If there is no car coming, you take on that information and choose to cross the road. If you see a car coming, you stay where you are, because, well, it would be irrational to walk into the road if you might be hit by a car.

[00:02:36] Normally our brains are pretty good at processing this sort of information. Indeed, with the example of walking into the road, it’s almost subconscious

[00:02:46] You don’t have to actively think every time you cross a road, you just look and the decision is taken almost in the background.

[00:02:54] But, it doesn’t always work this way. 

[00:02:57] Our brains can hold a piece of information about something, but we behave in a way that is in contradiction to this information.

[00:03:06]This is called cognitive dissonance.

[00:03:09] A classic example might be someone who knows that smoking is bad for them, that there is evidence that it causes all sorts of diseases, but they do it anyway.

[00:03:21] Or someone who knows that flying on aeroplanes is damaging to the environment and yet jets off for weekends away twice a month.

[00:03:29] Or someone who is on a diet, and they decide to treat themselves to a large burger and chips just as a treat, just this once.

[00:03:40] In all of these cases, the person acts in a way that is contradictory to knowledge that they believe to be true. 

[00:03:48] Of course, people knowing one thing but behaving in a contradictory way is nothing new, but the label of cognitive dissonance, and the study of this particular behaviour was first proposed in 1957 by the American social psychologist Leon Festinger.

[00:04:08] Festinger observed this behaviour all around him, perhaps even in himself, and argued that human beings try to be as consistent as possible in their lives, but often find that there is inconsistency.

[00:04:25] This inconsistency, Festinger argued, often causes physical discomfort, it often makes you feel physically ill when you do it.

[00:04:35] Until relatively recently I needed to fly very often for work. 

[00:04:39] I would fly from Malta to London twice a month, so that’s an average of about 12 hours flying every month. 

[00:04:47] But I am also very aware of the environmental impact of flying. 

[00:04:52] I know that flying spews carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that flying less is an efficient way of lowering your carbon footprint.

[00:05:01] Yet I still did it.

[00:05:03] Every time I got on a flight I felt a little bit physically ill. I wasn’t afraid of flying, but it was this conflict between what I believed and what I did that was causing me physical discomfort.

[00:05:17] If I didn’t know, or didn’t believe, that flying had a negative impact on the environment, no doubt I wouldn't have felt this way.

[00:05:27] 50 years ago I’m sure people didn’t, and if you don’t believe in the environmental impact of flying I’m sure you don't feel this way either.

[00:05:37] Festinger, the psychologist who originally proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance noticed that humans feel different levels of discomfort, depending on two factors.

[00:05:49] Firstly, how important you feel your belief to be. 

[00:05:53] With my flight example, someone who was an environmental activist would evidently feel different about flying to someone who had watched a few documentaries and knew in the back of their mind that flying was bad for the environment.

[00:06:08] And the second factor is the number of inconsistent thoughts you have. 

[00:06:15] Let’s take the example of someone who is offered alcohol, but drinking alcohol is against their religion and in addition to that, they know that alcohol has negative health consequences, and they know that they need to drive a car later on that evening and that driving while drinking alcohol is dangerous. 

[00:06:33] That’s a lot of reasons to not drink alcohol, a lot more than someone who, for example, was aware of the long term health consequences of drinking alcohol but it wasn’t against their religion and they didn’t need to drive.

[00:06:46] Festinger noticed that the level of cognitive dissonance, based on the two factors I’ve mentioned, led to differing levels of physical discomfort.

[00:06:58] So, the person in our first example would feel a lot more discomfort than the person in our second example.

[00:07:05] This might sound obvious, but the point is that cognitive dissonance isn’t black and white, it exists in varying degrees.

[00:07:14] Where it starts to get even more interesting is what Festinger noticed people do to try to avoid these feelings of discomfort.

[00:07:23] Nobody likes feeling uncomfortable, and when you do feel uncomfortable you take actions to avoid these feelings.

[00:07:32] Festinger proposed that humans have four ways of dealing with this discomfort.

[00:07:38] Firstly, you can change your behaviour. 

[00:07:41] You can say, right, I know this is bad, and I’m going to stop doing it. With the classic example of smoking, you would stop smoking.

[00:07:51] Secondly, you can justify your behaviour to make it fit the knowledge that you have. With our example of someone who smokes, that person might say “yes, I know smoking is bad for me, but I’m a vegetarian and I exercise 3 times a week - smoking is my only vice, I’m otherwise really healthy”.

[00:08:13] Thirdly, you can justify the behaviour by adding new behaviours, you can do something that you tell yourself compensates for the behaviour. Going back to our smoker, you can say “I’m going to quit drinking, or I’ll start going to the gym”. 

[00:08:31] This doesn’t change the fact that you know that smoking is bad, but you justify it by doing other things that you tell yourself reduce its impact.

[00:08:42] And finally, you can either ignore or deny any information that is contradictory to your actions. Our smoker might say “well, there isn’t conclusive evidence that smoking causes lung cancer, there are lots of other factors and I just don’t believe it’s as bad as people say it is”.

[00:09:00] This fourth action is worth spending some more time discussing, because it leads to something called confirmation bias. 

[00:09:09] This is the idea that we tend to only believe information that confirms something that we already believe to be true.

[00:09:17] Instead of approaching life from the perspective of, here’s the evidence, now what does this mean is true, it’s often tempting to approach things from the other way around, thinking ‘this is what I believe to be true’, now I’m going to surround myself with evidence that supports my belief.

[00:09:36] In the era of social media, where you can surround yourself with people who think in exactly the same way as you, believe similar things, and consume the same kind of content, this is easier than ever to do.

[00:09:50] And the worst thing is that we normally don’t even know that we’re doing it - it’s just done ‘for us’ because platforms such as Facebook and Instagram show us content that we are more likely to believe is true, so we engage with it and stay on these platforms for longer, further reinforcing the beliefs that we already had.

[00:10:12] So, those are the four ways that Festinger proposed people deal with their cognitive dissonance - they either change their behaviour, they justify it, they add new behaviours, or they ignore it altogether.

[00:10:28] Cognitive dissonance, Festinger said, doesn't just occur for actions you take now, it also happens when you consider an action you took in the past.

[00:10:39] It can be uncomfortable to feel like a decision you took in the past was incorrect, and people often justify their past decisions despite the fact that they are inconsistent with their current beliefs.

[00:10:53] An obvious example here is voting, and political elections.

[00:10:59] It’s very common for people to defend the actions of a politician that they voted for even if those actions are inconsistent with their current beliefs.

[00:11:10] Being wrong is an uncomfortable feeling for most people, and one way of reducing this discomfort, and minimising the impact of your decision is by defending the actions that you feel you had an impact in causing.

[00:11:26] I should stress that Festinger’s theory of Cognitive Dissonance doesn’t suggest that people are any less or more intelligent if they have instances in their life of cognitive dissonance. 

[00:11:38] Indeed, he proposed it as an inherently human flaw, something that we all are guilty of doing.

[00:11:46] The most common example used for cognitive dissonance is smoking, because over a billion people do it, and the vast majority of those people know that smoking isn’t good for them.

[00:11:57] But smokers aren’t of any higher or lower intelligence than anyone else, and if you smoke this is by no means a criticism. 

[00:12:06] It is just that it is the world’s most evident example of cognitive dissonance, and one that is easy to recognise. 

[00:12:14] So, what can we do about this?

[00:12:16] Is cognitive dissonance by default bad? 

[00:12:20] Well, it might be uncomfortable, especially if the inconsistency is either very strong or there are several inconsistencies.

[00:12:29] And while the simple answer might be to just to stop engaging in the behaviour, for most people this isn’t always realistic. 

[00:12:38] We are only human, after all.

[00:12:42] Most psychologists suggest that key to overcoming this dissonance, and making better, more rational decisions is to become more aware of these inconsistencies, to not try to fight them, and certainly not to seek confirmation bias. 

[00:13:00] Instead, understand that your decision making process is often imperfect, that we all have these perfectly human flaws, these inbuilt biases, and that we should evaluate every decision based on the evidence in front of us, rather than what we want to believe, and it is by doing this that you will have the best chance of making more rational, better decisions.

[00:13:27]And that is certainly something that we can all aspire to.

[00:13:33] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Cognitive Dissonance, the inconsistency between what we believe and what we do.

[00:13:41] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:13:45] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:13:49] I’m not asking for examples of inconsistencies from your life, but I would love to know what you think about this idea. 

[00:13:56] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:14:06] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:14:12] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Cognitive Dissonance, the idea that you can believe one thing, but do something that is in complete contradiction to your beliefs.

[00:00:34] We’ll talk about what cognitive dissonance actually is, and about how and when the idea was first proposed.

[00:00:42] Then we’ll then move on to talk about some of the actions that people take when they have cognitive dissonance, how they try to overcome these contradictions.

[00:00:52] And we’ll end by talking about what you can actually do about this, and how psychologists suggest people can get over this inconsistency between what they believe to be right, and what they actually do.

[00:01:06] This is actually a request from a member from France, a great guy called Thierry. 

[00:01:11] So, Thierry, I hope you enjoy it.

[00:01:15] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:18] I remember being told as a kid that our brains are infinitely more powerful than the most powerful computer in the world. 

[00:01:26] There’s probably a little bit of debate about whether that is still true, but the idea really stuck with me

[00:01:34] Our brains contain an average of 86 billion neurons, and our capacity for reasoned, independent thought is why we, humans, have evolved to be the most powerful species on the planet.

[00:01:48] But our brains aren’t perfect.

[00:01:51] The imperfection we are talking about today is cognitive dissonance, the idea that we can know something, and behave in a way that is in complete contradiction to our knowledge.

[00:02:04] You might think that this sounds strange. 

[00:02:08] Rational thinking means processing information and using that to make a rational, sensible decision.

[00:02:16] If you need to cross a road, you look to see whether a car is coming. 

[00:02:21] If there is no car coming, you take on that information and choose to cross the road. If you see a car coming, you stay where you are, because, well, it would be irrational to walk into the road if you might be hit by a car.

[00:02:36] Normally our brains are pretty good at processing this sort of information. Indeed, with the example of walking into the road, it’s almost subconscious

[00:02:46] You don’t have to actively think every time you cross a road, you just look and the decision is taken almost in the background.

[00:02:54] But, it doesn’t always work this way. 

[00:02:57] Our brains can hold a piece of information about something, but we behave in a way that is in contradiction to this information.

[00:03:06]This is called cognitive dissonance.

[00:03:09] A classic example might be someone who knows that smoking is bad for them, that there is evidence that it causes all sorts of diseases, but they do it anyway.

[00:03:21] Or someone who knows that flying on aeroplanes is damaging to the environment and yet jets off for weekends away twice a month.

[00:03:29] Or someone who is on a diet, and they decide to treat themselves to a large burger and chips just as a treat, just this once.

[00:03:40] In all of these cases, the person acts in a way that is contradictory to knowledge that they believe to be true. 

[00:03:48] Of course, people knowing one thing but behaving in a contradictory way is nothing new, but the label of cognitive dissonance, and the study of this particular behaviour was first proposed in 1957 by the American social psychologist Leon Festinger.

[00:04:08] Festinger observed this behaviour all around him, perhaps even in himself, and argued that human beings try to be as consistent as possible in their lives, but often find that there is inconsistency.

[00:04:25] This inconsistency, Festinger argued, often causes physical discomfort, it often makes you feel physically ill when you do it.

[00:04:35] Until relatively recently I needed to fly very often for work. 

[00:04:39] I would fly from Malta to London twice a month, so that’s an average of about 12 hours flying every month. 

[00:04:47] But I am also very aware of the environmental impact of flying. 

[00:04:52] I know that flying spews carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that flying less is an efficient way of lowering your carbon footprint.

[00:05:01] Yet I still did it.

[00:05:03] Every time I got on a flight I felt a little bit physically ill. I wasn’t afraid of flying, but it was this conflict between what I believed and what I did that was causing me physical discomfort.

[00:05:17] If I didn’t know, or didn’t believe, that flying had a negative impact on the environment, no doubt I wouldn't have felt this way.

[00:05:27] 50 years ago I’m sure people didn’t, and if you don’t believe in the environmental impact of flying I’m sure you don't feel this way either.

[00:05:37] Festinger, the psychologist who originally proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance noticed that humans feel different levels of discomfort, depending on two factors.

[00:05:49] Firstly, how important you feel your belief to be. 

[00:05:53] With my flight example, someone who was an environmental activist would evidently feel different about flying to someone who had watched a few documentaries and knew in the back of their mind that flying was bad for the environment.

[00:06:08] And the second factor is the number of inconsistent thoughts you have. 

[00:06:15] Let’s take the example of someone who is offered alcohol, but drinking alcohol is against their religion and in addition to that, they know that alcohol has negative health consequences, and they know that they need to drive a car later on that evening and that driving while drinking alcohol is dangerous. 

[00:06:33] That’s a lot of reasons to not drink alcohol, a lot more than someone who, for example, was aware of the long term health consequences of drinking alcohol but it wasn’t against their religion and they didn’t need to drive.

[00:06:46] Festinger noticed that the level of cognitive dissonance, based on the two factors I’ve mentioned, led to differing levels of physical discomfort.

[00:06:58] So, the person in our first example would feel a lot more discomfort than the person in our second example.

[00:07:05] This might sound obvious, but the point is that cognitive dissonance isn’t black and white, it exists in varying degrees.

[00:07:14] Where it starts to get even more interesting is what Festinger noticed people do to try to avoid these feelings of discomfort.

[00:07:23] Nobody likes feeling uncomfortable, and when you do feel uncomfortable you take actions to avoid these feelings.

[00:07:32] Festinger proposed that humans have four ways of dealing with this discomfort.

[00:07:38] Firstly, you can change your behaviour. 

[00:07:41] You can say, right, I know this is bad, and I’m going to stop doing it. With the classic example of smoking, you would stop smoking.

[00:07:51] Secondly, you can justify your behaviour to make it fit the knowledge that you have. With our example of someone who smokes, that person might say “yes, I know smoking is bad for me, but I’m a vegetarian and I exercise 3 times a week - smoking is my only vice, I’m otherwise really healthy”.

[00:08:13] Thirdly, you can justify the behaviour by adding new behaviours, you can do something that you tell yourself compensates for the behaviour. Going back to our smoker, you can say “I’m going to quit drinking, or I’ll start going to the gym”. 

[00:08:31] This doesn’t change the fact that you know that smoking is bad, but you justify it by doing other things that you tell yourself reduce its impact.

[00:08:42] And finally, you can either ignore or deny any information that is contradictory to your actions. Our smoker might say “well, there isn’t conclusive evidence that smoking causes lung cancer, there are lots of other factors and I just don’t believe it’s as bad as people say it is”.

[00:09:00] This fourth action is worth spending some more time discussing, because it leads to something called confirmation bias. 

[00:09:09] This is the idea that we tend to only believe information that confirms something that we already believe to be true.

[00:09:17] Instead of approaching life from the perspective of, here’s the evidence, now what does this mean is true, it’s often tempting to approach things from the other way around, thinking ‘this is what I believe to be true’, now I’m going to surround myself with evidence that supports my belief.

[00:09:36] In the era of social media, where you can surround yourself with people who think in exactly the same way as you, believe similar things, and consume the same kind of content, this is easier than ever to do.

[00:09:50] And the worst thing is that we normally don’t even know that we’re doing it - it’s just done ‘for us’ because platforms such as Facebook and Instagram show us content that we are more likely to believe is true, so we engage with it and stay on these platforms for longer, further reinforcing the beliefs that we already had.

[00:10:12] So, those are the four ways that Festinger proposed people deal with their cognitive dissonance - they either change their behaviour, they justify it, they add new behaviours, or they ignore it altogether.

[00:10:28] Cognitive dissonance, Festinger said, doesn't just occur for actions you take now, it also happens when you consider an action you took in the past.

[00:10:39] It can be uncomfortable to feel like a decision you took in the past was incorrect, and people often justify their past decisions despite the fact that they are inconsistent with their current beliefs.

[00:10:53] An obvious example here is voting, and political elections.

[00:10:59] It’s very common for people to defend the actions of a politician that they voted for even if those actions are inconsistent with their current beliefs.

[00:11:10] Being wrong is an uncomfortable feeling for most people, and one way of reducing this discomfort, and minimising the impact of your decision is by defending the actions that you feel you had an impact in causing.

[00:11:26] I should stress that Festinger’s theory of Cognitive Dissonance doesn’t suggest that people are any less or more intelligent if they have instances in their life of cognitive dissonance. 

[00:11:38] Indeed, he proposed it as an inherently human flaw, something that we all are guilty of doing.

[00:11:46] The most common example used for cognitive dissonance is smoking, because over a billion people do it, and the vast majority of those people know that smoking isn’t good for them.

[00:11:57] But smokers aren’t of any higher or lower intelligence than anyone else, and if you smoke this is by no means a criticism. 

[00:12:06] It is just that it is the world’s most evident example of cognitive dissonance, and one that is easy to recognise. 

[00:12:14] So, what can we do about this?

[00:12:16] Is cognitive dissonance by default bad? 

[00:12:20] Well, it might be uncomfortable, especially if the inconsistency is either very strong or there are several inconsistencies.

[00:12:29] And while the simple answer might be to just to stop engaging in the behaviour, for most people this isn’t always realistic. 

[00:12:38] We are only human, after all.

[00:12:42] Most psychologists suggest that key to overcoming this dissonance, and making better, more rational decisions is to become more aware of these inconsistencies, to not try to fight them, and certainly not to seek confirmation bias. 

[00:13:00] Instead, understand that your decision making process is often imperfect, that we all have these perfectly human flaws, these inbuilt biases, and that we should evaluate every decision based on the evidence in front of us, rather than what we want to believe, and it is by doing this that you will have the best chance of making more rational, better decisions.

[00:13:27]And that is certainly something that we can all aspire to.

[00:13:33] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Cognitive Dissonance, the inconsistency between what we believe and what we do.

[00:13:41] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:13:45] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:13:49] I’m not asking for examples of inconsistencies from your life, but I would love to know what you think about this idea. 

[00:13:56] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:14:06] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:14:12] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

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