What is meant by cognitive dissonance in psychology?

Simply put, cognitive dissonance is the inability of the human mind to hold two conflicting ideas or beliefs. The confusion and uncertainty caused by the presence of two conflicting ideas make the mind unstable.


Since our mind constantly seeks stability, it does what it can to resolve its cognitive dissonance. A cognitively dissonant state of mind is an undesirable state of mind.


So what does a person’s mind do to resolve cognitive dissonance? That’s pretty much like asking what happens when two boxers fight. No brainer- one of them wins and the other loses unless its a draw of course. Same with the mind. When two opposing beliefs vie for a space in your psyche, one is victorious and the other is discarded.

Beliefs are often supported by reasons, or rationalizations, to use a better term. A person cannot resolve his cognitive dissonance without backing it up with good enough reasons. But once he does, once a belief knocks out its opponent, the mind becomes stable again. So the goal of resolving cognitive dissonance is to attain psychological stability.

How cognitive dissonance is resolved

Arun was a heavy drinker and loved to crack the bottle at the most incongruous occasions. Lately, he’d been reading some articles online about the dangers of heavy drinking. This led to a dissonance in his mind. On one hand, he knew he liked drinking, but, on the other, he began to realize that it could possibly have adverse effects on his health.  

Here “I like drinking” is in the ring with “Drinking is bad for me” and we can have only one winner because these are opposing beliefs and it isn’t possible to hold contradictory beliefs in the mind at the same time.

Every time Arun enjoys a bout of drinking, “I like drinking” lands a punch on “Drinking is bad for me”. Every time someone warns Arun of the dangers of drinking or he reads a news article on ill effects of drinking, “Drinking is bad for me” smashes a blow on “I like drinking”… and so on. But this conflict cannot go on for long because the mind wants peace, it wants the fight to end.

To achieve that end, here’s what Arun does…

Every time he reads a news item that discourages his alcoholism, he rationalizes:

“Alcohol can’t damage everyone. I know of people who drink alcohol like water and are in the pink of their health. So, these studies don’t mean anything and aren’t true for everyone. I’m going to continue drinking.”

K.O.

“I like drinking” delivers a knock-out punch to “Drinking is bad for me”. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner… and a mind just restored its stability.

cognitive dissonance metaphor
Mental boxing shatters our perceptions. New ways of thinking are replaced by old ways of thinking.

The mind tries to protect its beliefs, ideas, and habits

Resolution of cognitive dissonance enables the mind to protect its beliefs, ideas, and habits. We always try to support our beliefs with reasons so that we can justify their presence in our mind. These reasons are like crutches for our beliefs. Whether or not these reasons have any basis, in reality, is another matter. They just need to be good enough for us.

If you believe something and I tell you that your belief is unfounded and present you with my reasons, you’ll bring up reasons that you think justify your belief. If I challenge those reasons too, then the crutches your belief will shake, a boxing match will commence in your mind.

You’ll either end up maintaining your belief or you’ll replace it with a new one, either way, you’ll be successful in restoring your psychological stability. No more confusion, no more uncertainty.

Boxing and open-mindedness

There’s a constant boxing match going on in the mind of an open-minded person. He doesn’t really care about who wins or who loses. He’s more interested in the fight. He loves to see boxers take on one another and is free from the need to support one boxer for life. He knows that a boxer who wins today might lose when challenged by a stronger and better boxer in the future.

He just focuses on enjoying the game… and his mind finds a strange kind of stability in instability.   
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