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by Matt Williams
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Exercise Change - Blog: Cognitive Dissonance Theory - Part 5
Cognitive dissonance theory (which refers to a conflict in thinking) is one of the most influential theories in social psychology and has many applications within the field of motivation.
The term cognitive dissonance may refer to a feeling of discomfort caused by having conflicting ideas simultaneously. Alternately, discomfort may occur when our beliefs are in conflict with the way we behave. It is sometimes referred to as ‘the psychological squirm’, in reference to the uncomfortable feelings we often experience when contemplating two incompatible viewpoints.
The theory proposes that when people experience discomfort, they have a motivational drive to reduce the conflict causing it. In the context of health and fitness, consider a person who would like to lose weight. On one hand they think or believe that they would like to look and feel better, yet, on the other hand, they continue to eat junk food and not exercise. This represents a conflict between where the person is now, versus where they would like to be. Another classic example often discussed in the context of this theory is the example of someone who smokes. A person may wish to be healthy. They believe smoking is bad for them, yet they continue to smoke.
Pro-actively reducing this conflict, or dissonance, can be achieved through modifying or changing behaviours, attitudes, or values and beliefs. Alternatively it can be reduced by denying, justifying, minimising or blaming. Often it is much easier to make excuses than it is to change behaviour. This is why it is often said that JUST BECAUSE WE CAN RATIONALIZE THE CHOICES WE MAKE, IT DOESN'T MEAN WE ARE RATIONAL.
Goal setting theory is based on the idea that we can sometimes have desires to attain clearly identifiable goals. As a result an individual may become motivated to pursue a course of action in an attempt to reach this goal. In most cases the end goal is what provides the reward rather than the action or journey we take to attain it. The more effective a goal is, the more motivated someone will be to achieve it. The effectiveness of a goal is influenced by three key features, these being: proximity, difficulty and specificity.
Firstly, with regard to proximity, an ideal goal should be achievable within a reasonably short amount of time. What is reasonable will vary depending on the person, but in general if achieving a goal seems like it will take forever it probably will. If we can see the finish line we are more likely to reach it. If we can’t see the finish line, things can often seem hopeless because we feel as if we are drifting and getting nowhere. I know many people, myself included, have felt this way about past goals. Many people will be feeling this way now regarding their current goals and aspirations.
This may explain why often we are more motivated to achieve smaller goals like losing a dress size, or losing two or three kilos, as opposed to entering a body building competition. The latter just seems like it would take too long, whereas reaching the first two goals seems achievable.
Consider the following example: An unfit person who hasn't done a lot of running in the past may set a goal to run a marathon. While running a marathon is a valid long term goal for someone in this position, it may ultimately prove to be too ambitious. What is likely to happen is that after a few weeks of training this person would start to feel disheartened. As a result their motivation will decrease and they may start to feel they will never achieve their goal. This is not to say long-term goals like running a marathon aren't effective. It merely means that by splitting up or chunking a large goal into a series of smaller goals, you will be more likely to succeed.