Cognitive Dissonance: Why We Jump Through Hoops Not To Think Certain Thoughts

My October 20 post, Sales Resistance Tactics from "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion", touched on one of the mental biases that salespeople can exploit: our need to believe we are consistent, that our beliefs and our behaviors line up. In the "foot in the door" technique, for example, you are asked to make some small and seemingly insignificant gesture, such as agreeing to a vague statement like "I like having fun." When the salesperson actually wants something from you -- buying a year membership to the amusement park -- you will not be able to refuse without seeming inconsistent with your earlier action. This tactic is very effective because most people are very attached to the idea of themselves as consistent people. Who wants to believe that they are a mess of random decisions, easily influenced by external forces? No, we are who we are, dammit!

This is an example of cognitive dissonance, or the discomfort of holding contradictory ideas or perceptions. Our statement that we like fun is in conflict with our refusal to buy an amusement park pass. Conflict is very uncomfortable to us. We have to do something to relieve the dissonance. We have three options:
  1. Change the belief. Maybe we don't like fun after all.

  2. Change the behavior. Buy the amusement park pass. This is what the salesperson is counting on.

  3. Rationalize a way that the belief really is consistent with the behavior. For example, you might say, "Well, I like having fun, sure, but I don't find amusement parks fun." Or, "I like having fun and amusement parks are fun, but it's not the only kind of fun I want to have, and I have a limited fun budget, and this is not the optimal way to spend it, fun-per-dollar-wise." 
Notice that "accept I am inconsistent" is not on the list. This is not even an option.

The tricky part is that any way we resolve the dissonance, it will revise our self-concept and may change our behavior going forward. If you decide you don't like fun after all - if a salesperson asks "Do you like fun?" and, sensing a sales pitch, you snap, "No!" - you may come to see yourself as a ruthlessly practical and hardened person, and start to resent children and people who smile. If you buy the amusement park pass, you may start to see yourself as a real young-at-heart goofball and wind up on the mailing list for every practical joke catalogue available. Rationalizing can also send you down increasingly complex contortions.

I think about cognitive dissonance whenever I see people obviously rationalizing purchases which may not have been in their best interest. (I include myself.) The forces of advertising, marketing, salespeople, and even store layouts are adept at getting people to make purchases, purchases they later have to justify to themselves while avoiding at all costs the unacceptable belief, "I am at the mercy of sales exploits."

Here are some examples of possible cognitive-dissonance-creating realities, and ways you might reduce the dissonance.

You consider yourself an environmentalist but you drive a gas-guzzling car.
  1. Change the belief: "I guess the environment isn't as important to me as price and convenience."

  2. Change the behavior: trade in the car for a hybrid or electric model, or a bicycle.

  3. Rationalize: "I bought this car before I discovered environmentalism, so it's kind of grandfathered in. Creating demand for a brand-new car would be worse, right? Probably. Anyway, it's only for emergencies. I take the bus to work, when I get up early enough. And I recycle." 
You consider yourself a low-maintenance tomboy but you just bought $400 worth of make-up after getting a makeover at Sephora.
  1. Change the belief: "I guess I'm pretty girly after all."

  2. Change the behavior: Return as much as possible of the makeup unopened, vow never to enter Sephora again.

  3. Rationalize: "It's only while I'm actively dating. You have to look good to reel 'em in. When I've landed someone I'll stop wearing it."
(This one is based on a true story and the strategy I picked was ALL OF THEM.)

You believe that the business world is cutthroat and "survival of the fittest" means that only the best businesses survive, yet you are considering giving your son $100,000 to bail out his floundering microbrewery.
  1. Change the belief: "Maybe I was wrong about the way business works. Having a great business plan is one factor, but support or a safety net is also helpful."

  2. Change the behavior: Don't write the check. "You know what, Junior, you can succeed or fail on your own merits."

  3. Rationalize: "Business darwinism still holds most of the time, but the food and drink industry is a little different. Besides, wasn't it a very smart choice of my son to choose me as an investor? That's part of his business acumen!"
Two days ago you'd never heard of this charity, and now you're standing a hot parking lot begging unwilling Food Fair visitors to sign a petition.
  1. Change the belief: "I must really care about this cause."

  2. Change the behavior: Drop your clipboard, shout "PEACE!" and leave.

  3. Rationalize: "I'm learning a skill right now. This is valuable. I'll also score major brownie points with the cute guy from charity office. I bet he'll ask me out." 
You recognize that you have an abundance of resources while others have very little, yet you don't give to charity.
  1. Change the belief: "Actually, I don't have that much. Compared to like Bill Gates, I'm really quite poor."

  2. Change the behavior: Start giving to charity.

  3. Rationalize: "There must be a reason that I have more than others, probably I worked harder. Also, some charities are scams, and it would take a genie to tell which ones." 
As you can see, none of the strategies are necessarily 100% right, although some are more logical than others. It seems like there is a lot of fooling ourselves that comes with rationalizing and other cognitive dissonance resolution strategies. I think this is because of our desperation to avoid unacceptable thoughts, such as "I am easily influenced by others," "I am powerless," "Life is essentially random," and "Death is inevitable."

It's really hard to tell when we're actively working to reduce dissonance, but being familiar with the phenomenon may help us to recognize it sometimes (in hindsight if nothing else). I think it's important for us to do our best to take a clear-eyed look at our beliefs and behaviors and the reasoning for them, and whether that reasoning is valid, especially in situations where emotions can tend to override logical decision-making, such as the mall or the voting booth.

Good luck out there! And remember, life is essentially random, so don't sweat it.


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