What is Cognitive Dissonance?Cognitive Dissonance

How we cope with two differing ideas at once.

How many times have you heard, “ignorance is bliss”  or “that’s my rationalization and I’m sticking to it?”. These statements are the result of cognitive dissonance. When we hold two ideas that do not match each other, or when our ideals and morals do not match an action we complete, it causes a discomfort called “cognitive dissonance”. Other examples of this can be “buyer’s remorse,” when we feel regret for spending money after a large purchase after explaining how we work hard to save money. Also, if we really want something that we weren’t able to get, or want to do something we won’t be able to do, we may say, “it probably wouldn’t have been fun anyway”, which is also known as the “sour grapes” expression. The 2 most common examples I hear the most are, ” I know I should work out/lose weight, but I just don’t have the time or energy right now to work out, I’m too tired, I have to finish xyz first,” OR “I know I should stop smoking cigarettes, but too many of my friends do it, so it’ll just be too hard to quit right now.”

Why we change the rules…

According to Sweeny et al. (2010) there are three reasons we may purposefully avoid information to would lead to cognitive dissonance…

  1. We would have to change our beliefs: We sometimes do this because we don’t want to give up other beliefs we hold dear. We are more likely to seek information that confirms what we currently believe, than to seek information that counters it, this is also known as a confirmation bias. As one example, people who want to believe that their world is safe, may avoid watching the news so they do not have to hear reports of burglaries or murders.
  2. The information may require us to take undesired actions: as it states, we may avoid information so that we don’t have to participate in an action that may be undesired. A woman may find a lump on her breast, and know that breast cancer runs in her family, but may avoid going to see the doctor to avoid having to deal with the possibility that she has cancer and having to complete chemotherapy. We may have a sneaking suspicion that our partner is not being faithful to the relationship, but rationalize their behavior and not inquire about it to avoid ending the relationship. We may not look at quite how bad cigarettes are for us, because if we did, we’d have no excuse to not stop.
  3. The information itself, or the decision to learn this information may cause unpleasant emotions: similar to the example above, we may not question fishy behavior in our partner, because we risk that if they are cheating, we may have to then end the relationship and deal with the unfortunate sad feelings associated with that. A study done in 1987 found that when homosexual men were offered the chance to find out whether or not they were HIV positive, 80% chose to decline learning their results, stating they feared the painful psychological results it would have on them. This is often seen in patients who are offered the chance to find out if they have Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Disease, and various forms of Cancer.

It’s okay to Change the Rules if you don’t like the game

Is it okay to experience cognitive dissonance? OF COURSE! If you did not at some time in your life experience cognitive dissonance, then you would not be human. If someone holds an unhealthy belief that they must maintain a BMI of no more than 16, but also wants to lead a healthy lifestyle, they can be educated on the unhealthy effects of anorexia to encourage healthy body weight. Different therapies can use cognitive dissonance to point out where the client’s ideas and thoughts do not match their current actions. It can help people chose in which way they want to make their thoughts/beliefs and actions align. This is often used in cognitive therapy and mindfulness.

In addition, some people may find that their quality of life after learning they may develop Huntington’s disease may be dramatically reduced. They may experience anxiety, and worry about completing a “bucket list” in time. This same person may find they don’t enjoy simple things they enjoyed before, like a lazy evening at home sipping wine and watch television with their partner. Or going out spending time with friends. They may feel obligated to spend all their time with only their immediate family and never branch out and experience life.

Sometimes knowing something bad is going to happen, when there is nothing you can do about it can just cause more stress.


Have you noticed yourself using cognitive dissonance in your life? Do you find it useful, harmful, or both? Why else do you think we may chose to live in ignorance?

Works Cited & Additional Reading

Sweeny, Kate; Melnyk, Darya; Miller, Wendi; Shepperd, James A. (2010) Information avoidance: Who, what, when, and why. Review of General Psychology, Vol 14(4) 340-353.

Fighting Cognitive Dissonance & The Lies We Tell Ourselves (Psych Central)

Psychology’s Treacherous Trio: Confirmation Bias, Cognitive Dissonance, and Motivated Reasoning (Why We Reason)

Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

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