Cognitive dissonance is the tension caused by holding two conflicting ideas.
Here’s Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, who perfectly summarises the idea with the aid of an age-old fable:
“In a classic Aesop’s fable, a hungry fox encounters grapes hanging from a vine. The fox desperately wants the grapes.
Yet as hard as he tries, he cannot reach them. Frustrated, the fox decides the grapes must be sour and that therefore he would not want them anyway.
The fox comforts himself by changing his perception of the grapes because it is too uncomfortable to reconcile the thought that the grapes are sweet and ready for the taking, and yet he cannot have them.
To reconcile these two conflicting ideas, the fox changes his perception of the grapes and in the process relieves the pain of what psychologists term cognitive dissonance.”
When you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance, it can affect you in different ways. I’ll talk about two of the major ways it can influence you in your daily life.
Cognitive dissonance was presented in an experiment by Leon Festinger and his colleague.
Students entered a lab and were asked to do a boring task.
They were bored out of their minds.
After the experiment, the experimenter asked if the student would lie to another participant who was waiting outside to participate. The student was asked to say that the study was in fact lots of fun and not boring at all.
One group of students was paid $20 to lie to another participant.
The other group was paid $1.
The students that were paid $20 were fine with lying to the other unsuspecting participants.
They went on and on about how whimsical and enticing the actually boring experiment was.
They felt comfortable for lying just for the money. In other words, being paid that much was sufficient justification to lie.
And when these students were asked later on if they enjoyed the task, they bluntly replied that it was boring.
The students that were paid $1 were different.
Getting paid just $1 to lie to other participants wasn’t enough of a justification to lie.
They did so anyway but the important part about this is that they ended up convincing themselves that the experiment was fun.
After the entire experiment, when they were asked if the experiment was fun, they said that it was.
The students that were paid $1 had two discrepant thoughts:
“This task is boring” and “I’m being paid just $1 to lie.”
These conflicting, discrepant thoughts caused tension (i.e. dissonance).
To reduce this tension, they fundamentally changed their opinion about the dullness of the task.
They had to because thinking about how only $1 was enough to bribe them to lie was too uncomfortable a thought to have.
Here’s the full experiment in more detail:
Here’s a thought…
The danger about people working in low-paying jobs is that cognitive dissonance may arise in the same manner as it is showed in the following Dilbert cartoon strip:
One final, even more realistic hypothetical scenario:
Imagine you hate your job.
But you’re still going through the motions in that job.
Well, you might start persuading yourself that it’s comfortable, familiar, pays okay, that going to find another job would be too much hassle, and that it’s actually not that bad really.
It’s actually not that bad, really…
If you’re not satisfied with something in your life, don’t rationalise the problem away.
Now that you know about cognitive dissonance, you are now conscious of the mental gymnastics we are wired to go through and the tricks your mind can play on you if you let it.
Don’t fall for this trick.
Because if you do, ultimately – the joke’s on you.
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