Cognitive dissonance is a psychology term you’ve almost certainly heard before, but it’s not new. In fact, it’s been around since the 1950s, when a man named Leon Festinger theorized that people try to achieve a sort of internal consistency.
Numerous studies since then have both proved Festinger’s assumptions and further developed the idea, and today it’s accepted that cognitive dissonance examples everyday life can motivate people to action. What kind of action? Well, that depends.
Motivated to Change
Sometimes, people will choose to undermine or change one of their beliefs. Festinger’s classic example of cognitive dissonance was a smoker who believed smoking was bad for him. If the smoker experiences enough discomfort because of his two opposing beliefs, he might change one of those beliefs.
For example, he might begin to think, “smoking doesn’t do much harm.” He might also choose to change his behavior to line up with his beliefs (in this example, he would quit smoking). Another option would be to add thoughts to act as a bridge. “Smoking isn’t that bad,” for example.
Finally, a smoker experiencing cognitive dissonance might simply choose to ignore the discomfort. “This feels great, and I don’t care if it’s bad.”
Real Life Examples
Smoking isn’t the only example out there of cognitive dissonance examples everyday life; in fact, it’s likely something you experience (or have experienced) frequently. Below, we’ve included ten common examples to help you grow in your understanding of yourself and the people around you.
1. Being Nice
Being “nice” (especially for women) is considered an important value. Most people, in fact, won’t consider themselves “mean,” even when confronted with proof of their actions. Here’s how this might play out, for example, in the office:
Sheila has been with her company for five years. She has performed her work satisfactorily and wants to ask for a raise. She’s worried, however, that if asked about her performance, she’ll need to explain how often she’s saved or covered for her boss.
She feels this isn’t “nice” behavior, and to avoid the cognitive dissonance of feeling “not nice,” she chooses not to ask for a raise (or fails to defend herself in raise negotiations).
2. Being Honest
James is a college student and, like most people, he considers himself a “good person.” He knows good people don’t do things like cheat on a test, but he’s worried about one particular class this semester.
James has to make a decision: either study harder, get tutoring, miss out on social engagements, and still take a chance on failing the class, or cheating. If he cheats, here are some of the things he’ll have to tell himself to appease the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance he’s experience:
- This professor’s tests are too difficult; everybody has to cheat.
- Everybody is cheating, and I’ll be the weird one if I don’t.
- It’s not that big a deal.
- I’m just a cheater.
3. Bad Restaurant
Your friend has great taste in restaurants, so when she recommends a new place downtown, you don’t waste much time trying it out. Unfortunately, it’s awful. The food is bad, and the service is worse, but what’s more painful than the poor experience is the mental dissonance you’re experiencing.
Does this mean you were wrong, and your friend has bad taste? Does this mean your friend has great taste and you’re the one with the bad taste? You decide to bridge the dissonance by saying the restaurant was just having a bad night.
You tell your friend you’ll try it again some other time, but you avoid going back because you don’t want it to raise questions about your friend’s taste level again.
4. I’ll Skip Lunch
Another of our everyday life cognitive dissonance examples is about healthy eating choices. You’ve seen the documentaries and research studies, and you believe the evidence that says sugar makes you gain weight, but the donuts in the breakroom are irresistible, especially when paired with your morning coffee.
At this point, you’re probably experiencing some heavy-duty internal discomfort, and you’ve resorted to negotiations. For example, you might choose to:
- Stick to your guns and forgo the donut.
- Promise yourself you’ll have a salad for lunch or run an extra mile at the gym tonight to cancel out the harm.
- Resort to feelings of shame or guilt (“I don’t deserve to be healthy”).
5. Good Deeds
One of the ways non-profits raise funds is by appealing to your sense of being a good person. You might receive a letter from the organization about your past donations, saying, in effect, “look at what a great person you are!”
Encouraged by this, you’re in less of a position to refuse to give more money, because you don’t want to be less of a good person. Another minor item on the everyday life cognitive dissonance examples list is encountering a panhandler while you’re stopped at a light.
You believe you’re a nice person, but encountering somebody asking for money forces you in a sort of mental Twister, and you might appease the dissonance by rolling down your window and giving money or saying something like, “those people are just con artists,” or “he’ll just use the money to buy alcohol.”
Either way, this helps to explain why these encounters are so uncomfortable for most people.
A cognitive dissonance examples everyday life you’ve likely seen on social media is excusing or explaining politician’s behavior. This can look like one of the following:
- A politician you support does something or supports something you don’t believe in
- A politician you oppose does something you support
These kinds of situations put us in a state of cognitive dissonance, which we then seem to quiet. Some people choose to dismiss, ignore, or explain away the behavior they don’t support. “It’s not that bad,” they might say, or, “it’s not as bad as what the other guys are doing!”
Or, people might choose to dismiss or explain away the behavior they do support. “He did one thing right, but look at all the bad things he’s done!”
7. Change of Faith
This sort of example happens every day on college campuses. Bright students enter the big world of a college campus, only to encounter different ways of living and believing. These forced encounters cause enough dissonance to set some people on a path of searching that lasts years.
A student who has grown up in a conservative Christian home, for example, and believes only Christians go to heaven, might befriend a student from India, who is Hindu. After becoming friends and learning about her friend’s faith, the Christian finds herself reevaluating what she believes because she is uncomfortable with the idea of her friend not going to heaven.
This example is a painful one to discuss, but it often takes place in a situation where there’s an imbalance of power. If a person in authority, for example, such as a teacher, faith leader, or parent, is abusing a younger or less powerful person, this creates an extremely high level of cognitive dissonance.
The person being abused has to either choose to change his beliefs about authority (all authority figures are bad), rationalize or ignore the abuse, or change his beliefs about himself (I am bad and worthy of being abused).
9. Sour Grapes
The term “sour grapes” originated with one of Aesop’s fables, about a fox who cannot reach grapes that he wants. He experiences cognitive dissonance and to ease his frustration; he decides the grapes must be sour and therefore undesirable.
This justification for the action he can’t take is a great example of how we change our thoughts to reconcile with the world around us!
10. The Environment
Our final on the list of everyday life cognitive dissonance examples is the disturbance some people encounter when they hold high ideals about the environment but struggle to find tenable solutions in their everyday life.
Here are three common predicaments:
- You know how much damage straws do in landfills, but your server just served you a drink with a straw. Now, you feel uncomfortable using the straw, even though the damage has already been done.
- You know how much damage vehicle emissions do to the environment, but the only job you can find will require a forty-minute commute.
- You believe in fresh, local food, but you’re starving, but the only food options available are highly processed and highly packaged.
As we’re sure you’ve noticed by now, cognitive dissonance isn’t just a term for psychologists; it’s a phenomenon we encounter constantly. Understanding it can help us recognize it at work in our own lives, helping us grow into better, wiser people. Good luck!