Cognitive dissonance is a phenomenon that has been extensively studied by social psychologists. It is widely recognized as a powerful force that influences human behavior and decision-making, often below our level of awareness. It refers to the discomfort we feel when confronted with information or ideas that contradict our own existing attitudes, beliefs, or values. We all want to be perceived as consistent, and will go to great lengths to appear that way to ourselves and others. We’re all subject to dissonance, and we’ll work hard to reduce it. It’s uncomfortable to hold two ideas that are opposite or in conflict, so we’ll do whatever we can to ease that discomfort.
Cognitive dissonance is a normal and common human experience. But it’s easier to recognize it in others than in ourselves. Understanding some of the signs of cognitive dissonance, and learning to recognize them in yourself, can be a helpful step towards reducing its impact and towards building greater insight and self-awareness. Some of the signs that may indicate when people are experiencing cognitive dissonance include:
- Rationalization and justification of their beliefs or behaviors, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. People tend to double down on their original positions when confronted with new data.
- Avoidance or even denial of the existence of conflicting information. Sometimes it may seem like others are watching a totally different movie. They may offer nonsensical explanations to justify their ideas or beliefs and resort to rambling “word salad” responses.
- Frustration or anger. We don’t want to feel like, much less admit, that we are wrong. Nobody appreciates evidence that contradicts their self-image. If pushed, many people resort to ad hominem attacks and name-calling rather than trying to explain their position logically.
If you’re in a discussion and you find the other person offering rambling or nonsensical explanations to justify their position, or if they begin calling you names or otherwise attacking you in ways that are unrelated to the conversation, you’ve probably won the day on logical grounds. However, you may not have moved the relationship forward.
In an ideal world, we would agree that it is good to be open to conflicting viewpoints and to be willing to consider the possibility that our beliefs or attitudes may be wrong. We should all be more open-minded and receptive to new ideas. However, that’s not the way this world works. We are all subject to our own unique sets and combinations of biases and beliefs. And we will experience cognitive dissonance, and the associated behaviors and responses described above, whenever they are challenged.
If you are leading a team, it will be to your advantage to create an atmosphere that encourages open and direct dialog to help people understand and challenge their own (sometimes inconsistent) assumptions and to help others do the same, while minimizing the potential for discomfort and conflict dealing with cognitive dissonance brings.
Some of the ideas to help people deal with such potential dysfunctions at work, as explored by psychologist and author Amy Edmondson, are relevant here. If your team members are quieter than usual and keeping their heads down, or if there seems to be more frustration and conflict, it could be that they are dealing with their own dissonance. Or perhaps they are threatened by what they see as your own blind spots and inconsistencies (thus undermining their sense of psychological safety). While it’s difficult to make a more open environment if the norms have already been established, keep the following ideas in mind if you’re new to leadership, or charged with revitalizing an old team (from a recent HBR article on this topic):
"Anyone who has worked on a team marked by silence and the inability to speak up, knows how hard it is to reverse that. A lot of what goes into creating a psychologically safe environment are good management practices — things like establishing clear norms and expectations so there is a sense of predictability and fairness; encouraging open communication and actively listening to employees; making sure team members feel supported; and showing appreciation and humility when people do speak up."
To the extent that we can learn to recognize the signs of cognitive dissonance and take steps to reduce it, we can improve our ability to make informed decisions, maintain an open mind, build more effective teams and avoid rigid thinking patterns. Taking a step back when we feel discomfort, anger or frustration, and considering whether dissonance may be at the root of these feelings, is a step in the right direction. If you’re uncomfortable, re-frame it as an opportunity to learn something new and useful.
We all see different movies. Try to understand the ones you're not watching.