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Alcohol and Mental Health

What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

Published:
September 18, 2023
·
18 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
September 18, 2023
·
18 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
September 18, 2023
·
18 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
September 18, 2023
·
18 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Reframe Content Team
September 18, 2023
·
18 min read

You value your health and believe it’s important to take care of yourself. But you also believe that alcohol is bad for you. So every time you drink, you feel uncomfortable and guilty. To relieve this tension, you convince yourself that you’re only drinking because you’re really stressed. You’re giving yourself a free pass — “just this once.” Sound familiar? 

In this post, we’ll explore what cognitive dissonance is, how it occurs, why it can be both bad and good, and finally have answers to questions like “What is dissonance,” and, “What is cognitive dissonance.” We’ll also offer tips for how to reduce any cognitive dissonance we’re experiencing. Let’s dive in!

What Is Cognitive Dissonance? 

First and foremost, cognitive dissonance is not a disease or illness: it’s a psychological phenomenon that can happen to all of us. It occurs when we hold two related but conflicting thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes in our mind at the same time. For instance, we might experience cognitive dissonance if we greatly value animals, but we also love eating meat. 

Psychologist Leon Festinger came up with the concept in 1957 to describe the discomfort we experience when two of our cognitions — or thoughts — are incompatible with each other. We tend to seek consistency in our attitudes and perception. When there’s inconsistency or incompatibility (dissonance), it can cause a sense of unease or discomfort. 

We can experience cognitive dissonance when we learn a new piece of information that disagrees with one of our long-standing beliefs, or when we do something that goes against one of our values. For example, maybe we’re trying to be smart with our money and build up our savings, but continue to spend wildly. When we’re faced with an unexpected expense down the road, we might have feelings of regret or guilt.

We usually like to believe that we are logical, consistent, and good at making decisions. Cognitive dissonance interferes with our self-perceptions and our beliefs about our skills and abilities, which is why it can feel so unpleasant. 

What Are the Signs of Cognitive Dissonance? 

Most of us have probably experienced cognitive dissonance at some point — it’s really just part of being human. As imperfect beings, we can’t always behave in ways that match our beliefs, even if no one else knows. But cognitive dissonance is something we feel internally; it’s not something we can observe from the outside. In other words, only we can tell if we’re not living in alignment with our values.

How do we know when we’re experiencing cognitive dissonance? Here are some signs:

  • Feeling uncomfortable before doing something or making a decision
  • Feeling guilt, shame, or regret over a past decision
  • Getting defensive about your choices
  • Feeling embarrassed about a decision you’ve made or something you’ve done, and then hiding it from others
  • Justifying or rationalizing a decision, action or behavior
  • Avoiding certain conversations or topics
  • Minimizing potentially dangerous or unhealthy consequences of your behavior

What Causes Cognitive Dissonance? 

Even though anyone can experience cognitive dissonance, certain actions can cause it. Here are three main situations that are likely to trigger cognitive dissonance:

  • Forced compliance. Sometimes, we might find ourselves doing things we disagree with due to external factors. For instance, perhaps we have to do something as part of our job or to follow the law. This also might involve going along with something due to peer pressure or to avoid bullying or abuse. 
  • Decision making. We all make decisions every day. But having to choose among several options that we don’t like or agree with can evoke cognitive dissonance. To reduce our feelings of discomfort, we might justify our choice, trying to convince ourselves that it was the right choice to make.
  • New information. Sometimes learning new information leads to feelings of cognitive dissonance. New information can shed light on how we really feel about something, or force us to confront things we may never have thought about before. For instance, based on old nutritional advice, we might have spent years believing that all fats are bad — only to learn later about the benefits of healthy fats, like those from olive oil or avocado.
  • Effort. If we put effort into a task, and that task turns out badly, we’re likely to experience dissonance. This is because we tend to value things we work hard for. To reduce this dissonance, we might try to convince ourselves that the task turned out well or that what we achieved is worthwhile.
Illustration: Steps to overcome cognitive dissonance - identify beliefs, challenge them, seek new perspectives

What Are Cognitive Dissonance’s Effects? 

So what exactly happens when we experience cognitive dissonance — what are the ramifications? As we’ve established, cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant experience that can make us feel uneasy and uncomfortable. This discomfort can manifest itself in a variety of ways: we may feel anxious, embarrassed, remorseful, sad, ashamed, or stressed. It can also influence how we feel about ourselves, leading to low self-esteem or self-worth. Living out of integrity with our values can take a toll on our psychological well-being and mental health. 

But cognitive dissonance doesn’t just influence how we feel: it also motivates us to take action to reduce those feelings of discomfort. As a result, it can have a powerful influence on our behaviors and actions. To cope with our discomfort, we might do any number of things: 

  • Avoid the dissonance. This might look like flat-out avoiding or ignoring the dissonance. We might avoid people or situations that remind us of it or distract ourselves from it with endless tasks. 
  • Delegitimize the dissonance. This might look like undermining evidence of the dissonance. For example, we might discredit the person, group, or situation that created the dissonance, saying that it’s untrustworthy, not reliable, or biased. 
  • Justify the dissonance. This might look like claiming our behavior was a one-off event, or providing rational arguments to convince ourselves or others that our behavior is acceptable. Or we might seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs — a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias.” 

Ultimately, avoiding, delegitimizing, and limiting the impact of cognitive dissonance prevents us from acknowledging our behavior and taking steps to resolve the dissonance. 

Sometimes, the way we resolve cognitive dissonance contributes to unhealthy behaviors or poor decisions. For instance, if we have a dissonance related to alcohol use and our health, we might decide that we value alcohol more than we value health. Or we might convince ourselves that the negative health effects have been overstated, or that our health will deteriorate in the long run anyway. By using these types of explanations, we reduce the dissonance while continuing the unhealthy behavior.

The Upside of Cognitive Dissonance

Okay, so we know cognitive dissonance can create negative emotions and actions. But, it’s not always bad. In fact, when we realize and acknowledge that our beliefs are unaligned with our actions, cognitive dissonance can prompt us to make positive changes. After all, it is possible to resolve cognitive dissonance by either changing our behavior or changing our beliefs or values so that they’re consistent with each other.

Interestingly, in one study, researchers asked participants to give speeches that would encourage the audience to take a certain action. Before they went on stage, they were told to think of a time when they didn’t exhibit the behavior they were about to extol. The result? The participants felt like hypocrites — but their intention to take the positive action increased. 

What does this tell us? It shows us that cognitive dissonance can be motivation and lead to positive cognitive changes. It encourages people to “do the work” to reduce inconsistencies. 

For instance, we might become so frustrated from feeling cognitive dissonance every time we drink alcohol that we decide to seek help. Even though it can be challenging to reduce our alcohol consumption, we’re likely to feel relief knowing that we’re living in alignment with what we value: our health.

Tips for Resolving Cognitive Dissonance 

While it can be difficult to recognize and address cognitive dissonance, it’s an important step for improving our overall well-being. As we’ve established, the most effective way to resolve cognitive dissonance is for us to ensure that our actions are consistent with our values, or vice versa. We can do this in a number of ways:

  • Changing our actions. This involves changing a behavior to ensure it matches with our beliefs. For instance, if we feel guilty about eating meat because we’re an animal lover, we can buy less meat, opt for cage-free eggs, and enjoy meat substitutes. In some cases, we might have to make a compromise. This might look like advocating for new policies if we care about the environment but the company we work for isn't environmentally conscious. 
  • Changing our thoughts. If we consistently behave in a way that contradicts our values or beliefs, we might need to question how important that particular belief or value is. When we do, we might realize that it really isn’t that important to us. Or we might add new beliefs to bring our actions more closely in line with our thinking. For instance, we might realize that the reason we’re having a hard time sticking to a diet is because we believe we have to lose weight to be accepted by others. We can challenge this belief and focus instead on the positive aspects of eating healthy, such as having more energy and boosting our immune system.
  • Changing our perception of the action. Sometimes, if we’re struggling to change the behavior or beliefs that caused the dissonance, it can be helpful to view our behavior in a new light. For instance, if we cannot afford to buy organic food, we might practice self-compassion and forgive ourselves for this, acknowledging that we’re doing the best we can. 

So, the next time you find yourself experiencing cognitive dissonance, try taking a step back and asking yourself some questions: 

  • What thoughts, beliefs, values or attitudes aren’t fitting together?
  • Do I need to change any specific behaviors? Or do I need to change a mindset or belief?
  • How severe is this dissonance? Does it bring me shame, regret, or guilt?

Our instinctual nature is to run away from or escape uncomfortable feelings. But calling attention to and acknowledging the dissonance can actually help lessen its intensity.

Can We Get Help for Cognitive Dissonance? 

As we’ve learned, cognitive dissonance isn’t a mental health condition, so it doesn’t necessarily require treatment. However, if we’re having difficulty stopping a behavior or thinking pattern that is causing significant distress, the support of a doctor, counselor or mental health professional can be helpful. 

For instance, if we have an addiction, are continually feeling guilt or shame, or are experiencing problems at work, school, or in relationships due to our cognitive dissonance, it’s probably wise to reach out for help.

The Bottom Line

Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when we hold two related but conflicting thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes. It creates stress, anxiety, and unease because we generally prefer to have consistency and compatibility in our thoughts and behaviors. While cognitive dissonance can lead to problematic reactions like justification or avoidance, it can also motivate us to make positive changes to ensure we’re living in alignment with our values. 

If you’re turning to alcohol to relieve cognitive dissonance, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and enhance their emotional well-being. 

You value your health and believe it’s important to take care of yourself. But you also believe that alcohol is bad for you. So every time you drink, you feel uncomfortable and guilty. To relieve this tension, you convince yourself that you’re only drinking because you’re really stressed. You’re giving yourself a free pass — “just this once.” Sound familiar? 

In this post, we’ll explore what cognitive dissonance is, how it occurs, why it can be both bad and good, and finally have answers to questions like “What is dissonance,” and, “What is cognitive dissonance.” We’ll also offer tips for how to reduce any cognitive dissonance we’re experiencing. Let’s dive in!

What Is Cognitive Dissonance? 

First and foremost, cognitive dissonance is not a disease or illness: it’s a psychological phenomenon that can happen to all of us. It occurs when we hold two related but conflicting thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes in our mind at the same time. For instance, we might experience cognitive dissonance if we greatly value animals, but we also love eating meat. 

Psychologist Leon Festinger came up with the concept in 1957 to describe the discomfort we experience when two of our cognitions — or thoughts — are incompatible with each other. We tend to seek consistency in our attitudes and perception. When there’s inconsistency or incompatibility (dissonance), it can cause a sense of unease or discomfort. 

We can experience cognitive dissonance when we learn a new piece of information that disagrees with one of our long-standing beliefs, or when we do something that goes against one of our values. For example, maybe we’re trying to be smart with our money and build up our savings, but continue to spend wildly. When we’re faced with an unexpected expense down the road, we might have feelings of regret or guilt.

We usually like to believe that we are logical, consistent, and good at making decisions. Cognitive dissonance interferes with our self-perceptions and our beliefs about our skills and abilities, which is why it can feel so unpleasant. 

What Are the Signs of Cognitive Dissonance? 

Most of us have probably experienced cognitive dissonance at some point — it’s really just part of being human. As imperfect beings, we can’t always behave in ways that match our beliefs, even if no one else knows. But cognitive dissonance is something we feel internally; it’s not something we can observe from the outside. In other words, only we can tell if we’re not living in alignment with our values.

How do we know when we’re experiencing cognitive dissonance? Here are some signs:

  • Feeling uncomfortable before doing something or making a decision
  • Feeling guilt, shame, or regret over a past decision
  • Getting defensive about your choices
  • Feeling embarrassed about a decision you’ve made or something you’ve done, and then hiding it from others
  • Justifying or rationalizing a decision, action or behavior
  • Avoiding certain conversations or topics
  • Minimizing potentially dangerous or unhealthy consequences of your behavior

What Causes Cognitive Dissonance? 

Even though anyone can experience cognitive dissonance, certain actions can cause it. Here are three main situations that are likely to trigger cognitive dissonance:

  • Forced compliance. Sometimes, we might find ourselves doing things we disagree with due to external factors. For instance, perhaps we have to do something as part of our job or to follow the law. This also might involve going along with something due to peer pressure or to avoid bullying or abuse. 
  • Decision making. We all make decisions every day. But having to choose among several options that we don’t like or agree with can evoke cognitive dissonance. To reduce our feelings of discomfort, we might justify our choice, trying to convince ourselves that it was the right choice to make.
  • New information. Sometimes learning new information leads to feelings of cognitive dissonance. New information can shed light on how we really feel about something, or force us to confront things we may never have thought about before. For instance, based on old nutritional advice, we might have spent years believing that all fats are bad — only to learn later about the benefits of healthy fats, like those from olive oil or avocado.
  • Effort. If we put effort into a task, and that task turns out badly, we’re likely to experience dissonance. This is because we tend to value things we work hard for. To reduce this dissonance, we might try to convince ourselves that the task turned out well or that what we achieved is worthwhile.
Illustration: Steps to overcome cognitive dissonance - identify beliefs, challenge them, seek new perspectives

What Are Cognitive Dissonance’s Effects? 

So what exactly happens when we experience cognitive dissonance — what are the ramifications? As we’ve established, cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant experience that can make us feel uneasy and uncomfortable. This discomfort can manifest itself in a variety of ways: we may feel anxious, embarrassed, remorseful, sad, ashamed, or stressed. It can also influence how we feel about ourselves, leading to low self-esteem or self-worth. Living out of integrity with our values can take a toll on our psychological well-being and mental health. 

But cognitive dissonance doesn’t just influence how we feel: it also motivates us to take action to reduce those feelings of discomfort. As a result, it can have a powerful influence on our behaviors and actions. To cope with our discomfort, we might do any number of things: 

  • Avoid the dissonance. This might look like flat-out avoiding or ignoring the dissonance. We might avoid people or situations that remind us of it or distract ourselves from it with endless tasks. 
  • Delegitimize the dissonance. This might look like undermining evidence of the dissonance. For example, we might discredit the person, group, or situation that created the dissonance, saying that it’s untrustworthy, not reliable, or biased. 
  • Justify the dissonance. This might look like claiming our behavior was a one-off event, or providing rational arguments to convince ourselves or others that our behavior is acceptable. Or we might seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs — a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias.” 

Ultimately, avoiding, delegitimizing, and limiting the impact of cognitive dissonance prevents us from acknowledging our behavior and taking steps to resolve the dissonance. 

Sometimes, the way we resolve cognitive dissonance contributes to unhealthy behaviors or poor decisions. For instance, if we have a dissonance related to alcohol use and our health, we might decide that we value alcohol more than we value health. Or we might convince ourselves that the negative health effects have been overstated, or that our health will deteriorate in the long run anyway. By using these types of explanations, we reduce the dissonance while continuing the unhealthy behavior.

The Upside of Cognitive Dissonance

Okay, so we know cognitive dissonance can create negative emotions and actions. But, it’s not always bad. In fact, when we realize and acknowledge that our beliefs are unaligned with our actions, cognitive dissonance can prompt us to make positive changes. After all, it is possible to resolve cognitive dissonance by either changing our behavior or changing our beliefs or values so that they’re consistent with each other.

Interestingly, in one study, researchers asked participants to give speeches that would encourage the audience to take a certain action. Before they went on stage, they were told to think of a time when they didn’t exhibit the behavior they were about to extol. The result? The participants felt like hypocrites — but their intention to take the positive action increased. 

What does this tell us? It shows us that cognitive dissonance can be motivation and lead to positive cognitive changes. It encourages people to “do the work” to reduce inconsistencies. 

For instance, we might become so frustrated from feeling cognitive dissonance every time we drink alcohol that we decide to seek help. Even though it can be challenging to reduce our alcohol consumption, we’re likely to feel relief knowing that we’re living in alignment with what we value: our health.

Tips for Resolving Cognitive Dissonance 

While it can be difficult to recognize and address cognitive dissonance, it’s an important step for improving our overall well-being. As we’ve established, the most effective way to resolve cognitive dissonance is for us to ensure that our actions are consistent with our values, or vice versa. We can do this in a number of ways:

  • Changing our actions. This involves changing a behavior to ensure it matches with our beliefs. For instance, if we feel guilty about eating meat because we’re an animal lover, we can buy less meat, opt for cage-free eggs, and enjoy meat substitutes. In some cases, we might have to make a compromise. This might look like advocating for new policies if we care about the environment but the company we work for isn't environmentally conscious. 
  • Changing our thoughts. If we consistently behave in a way that contradicts our values or beliefs, we might need to question how important that particular belief or value is. When we do, we might realize that it really isn’t that important to us. Or we might add new beliefs to bring our actions more closely in line with our thinking. For instance, we might realize that the reason we’re having a hard time sticking to a diet is because we believe we have to lose weight to be accepted by others. We can challenge this belief and focus instead on the positive aspects of eating healthy, such as having more energy and boosting our immune system.
  • Changing our perception of the action. Sometimes, if we’re struggling to change the behavior or beliefs that caused the dissonance, it can be helpful to view our behavior in a new light. For instance, if we cannot afford to buy organic food, we might practice self-compassion and forgive ourselves for this, acknowledging that we’re doing the best we can. 

So, the next time you find yourself experiencing cognitive dissonance, try taking a step back and asking yourself some questions: 

  • What thoughts, beliefs, values or attitudes aren’t fitting together?
  • Do I need to change any specific behaviors? Or do I need to change a mindset or belief?
  • How severe is this dissonance? Does it bring me shame, regret, or guilt?

Our instinctual nature is to run away from or escape uncomfortable feelings. But calling attention to and acknowledging the dissonance can actually help lessen its intensity.

Can We Get Help for Cognitive Dissonance? 

As we’ve learned, cognitive dissonance isn’t a mental health condition, so it doesn’t necessarily require treatment. However, if we’re having difficulty stopping a behavior or thinking pattern that is causing significant distress, the support of a doctor, counselor or mental health professional can be helpful. 

For instance, if we have an addiction, are continually feeling guilt or shame, or are experiencing problems at work, school, or in relationships due to our cognitive dissonance, it’s probably wise to reach out for help.

The Bottom Line

Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when we hold two related but conflicting thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes. It creates stress, anxiety, and unease because we generally prefer to have consistency and compatibility in our thoughts and behaviors. While cognitive dissonance can lead to problematic reactions like justification or avoidance, it can also motivate us to make positive changes to ensure we’re living in alignment with our values. 

If you’re turning to alcohol to relieve cognitive dissonance, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and enhance their emotional well-being. 

Summary FAQs

1. What is cognitive dissonance? 

Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we experience when we hold two related but conflicting thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes in our mind at the same time. 

2. What are the signs of cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is an internal condition. Some signs we may be experiencing it include guilt, shame, or regret over a decision, or justifying or rationalizing our decisions, actions or behaviors.

3. What causes cognitive dissonance?

Certain things might trigger cognitive dissonance, such as feeling obligated to do something to keep our job or to avoid bullying; receiving new information that challenges our beliefs; or putting effort into a task that turns out poorly. 

4. What are the effects of cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, embarrassment, guilt, and shame. But it can also motivate us to take action to reduce feelings of discomfort by avoiding the dissonance, delegitimizing it, or justifying it. 

5. Can cognitive dissonance be good?

Yes, when we acknowledge that our beliefs or attitudes are unaligned with our actions, it can prompt us to make positive change and reduce inconsistencies.

6. How can we reduce cognitive dissonance?

We can reduce cognitive dissonance by changing either our behavior or our beliefs so that they’re consistent with each other. In some cases, it also might be helpful to change our perception of our actions. 

Start Your Healing Journey With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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