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.
When we find ourselves in a state of dissonance, we commonly feel discomfort in the form guilt, anger, shame, sadness or embarrassment. More often than not, when we experience discomfort due to a discrepancy in thinking, we tell ourselves it isn't actually that big a deal. It is easy to tell ourselves that it’s too hard to do anything about it, or that our situation isn't that bad, or that it’s not actually that important. As humans we are biased to think that the choices we make are the correct ones, despite there often being contrary evidence. This bias provides some explanation as to why we often make irrational decisions and continue to participate in destructive behaviour.
Consider the following story: The Fox and the Grapes by Aesop (ca. 620–564 BCE) is a classic fable that provides an insight into how we as humans often deal with cognitive dissonance. In the story, a fox sees some grapes he really wants to eat. The grapes are hanging high in a tree. Unable to reach the grapes or think of a way in which to get them, the fox surmises that the grapes are probably not worth eating anyway. He strengthens this position by stating that because the grapes haven’t fallen yet they cannot be ripe and would most likely be too sour to eat.
This example provides a good insight into the patterns of justifying behaviour we often engage in. Firstly, we desire something e.g. to lose weight. Secondly we discover, usually sooner than later, that what we desire is unattainable, or at least difficult to attain. Thirdly, as a way of justifying this failure, we criticise and/or minimise the importance of what we originally desired. By doing this, we can maintain a feeling of comfort and avoid having to live with an on-going sense of failure.
This pattern of behaviour and thinking is sometimes called Adaptive Preference Formation. In short, this means that if we fail to reach a goal or feel the goal is too difficult to reach, we simply move the goal posts or forget about the goal all together. This is our way of adapting to and dealing with things we can’t attain.
What cognitive dissonance theory aims to achieve is to explore and resolve this feeling of discomfort so we can make an informed unbiased decision to either move forward or not. By exploring an issue fully we can make sense of things in the context of what we truly believe and not just what we believe for convenience. For example you may know that by not losing weight you are increasing your chance of heart disease. This creates a discrepancy with the belief that you are an intelligent, reasonable person who makes smart, informed decisions.
Although cognitive dissonance theory is widely acknowledged, there are some critics of the theory. The idea that people don’t think much about their attitudes, let alone whether they are in conflict with values and beliefs, is central to these criticisms.
Other critics look to reinterpret the theory. They claim that cognitive dissonance doesn’t arise by people experiencing discomfort due to a conflict in thinking. Instead, it occurs when people see their behaviour being in conflict with their positive views of themselves. For example, a person may think to themselves: ‘I’m a healthy person’. This causes conflict when they may also think to themselves: ‘but I don’t exercise and I eat bad food’. This interpretation, however, is only a slight variation and still works with the idea that we have a motivational drive to reduce discomfort.
How might cognitive dissonance theory relate to exercise motivation and change?
Cognitive dissonance has particular relevance to exercise motivation making it a highly useful and valuable theory. It becomes even more relevant for those of you who have a strong sense of where you want to be in life. Moreover, those who know what they need to do to achieve their goals, but just can’t manage to do it will find this theory particularly useful.
Consider the example of a person who has wanted to begin an exercise routine for the last six months, but for various reasons hasn't started. They know what they need to do but for some reason they just haven’t been able to get going. The process someone in this situation might consider is…
First, name any thoughts, beliefs and actions that are in conflict with achieving their goals, e.g. thoughts and beliefs might include ‘I’m not that unfit and I still look ok’, ‘I’m just not cut out for exercising’, or ‘I’ll probably fail’ etc. Actions might include overeating, watching too much TV and drinking regularly.
Second, you would explore this conflict and attempt to understand it. In this case by looking at desired behaviour including associated beliefs and thinking (starting an exercise routine, why this is so important to you and how it would make you feel), alongside the actual behaviour, beliefs and thinking.
Third, after examining both sides of your thinking and behaviour, you would make an informed decision about how to proceed.
What this process allows you to obtain is an accurate assessment of your current position and a clear picture of what you really want to achieve. Armed with this knowledge you can then either proceed with a plan of action, or if you find that you’re still unsure about change, you can work on *exploring and resolving the associated ambivalence instead.
Cognitive dissonance theory also allows you to see things for what they are. As mentioned earlier when discussing adaptive preference formation, all too often people justify, minimise and blame their way out of moving forward with their goals. By exposing these shortcomings, you can no longer hide behind excuses and justifications. As a result you must face the real reasons why you don’t do the things you want to do. Regardless of whether you then choose to pursue your goals, at the least you've gained a full picture of the issues preventing you from moving forward. These issues will most likely still be there the next time you choose to pursue the same or similar goals. When or if this happens you will then find yourself in a good position to deal with the real issues that continue to hold you back.
Take a moment to consider how cognitive dissonance theory is relevant to the things you have done in the past or the things that you are doing currently.
Coming in part 6 – Goal setting theory
*To take a closer look at any ambivalence you might have about making an exercise related change (or any other type of change) check out the ‘Exploring and resolving ambivalence’ activity here http://www.exercisechange.co.nz/resources.html