People are motivated to make the right decisions by nature. We all want good for ourselves – to be happy, healthy, safe, and loved. Regarding health, our health behavior consists of a series of everyday decisions– if we eat vegetables or settle for frozen pizza, take the stairs instead of the elevator. After making choices we think are good for us, we feel great.
You probably know the feeling of accomplishment after waking up early for a workout. Similarly, if you believe that a fruit salad will be healthy for you, you will be glad after eating it. But this logic doesn’t always seem to work… If we know smoking and alcohol are bad for us, why do people still try to get hooked on them? Social psychologists explain this phenomenon of habits with the Cognitive Dissonance Theory, developed by Leon Festinger.
Let’s stick with the example of smoking.
Most children grow up being taught that smoking is dangerous. Indeed, it leads to harm to nearly every organ in the body. Still, according to the survey by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each day about 1,600 youth lit up their first cigarette. When we do something contradicting our beliefs, we feel mental distress and discomfort. To decrease this unpleasant feeling, we have two options:
- Change our behavior and stop smoking.
- Change your belief about the behavior.
Since smoking might be socially desirable, and later it is challenging to quit, many people choose to change their beliefs instead. They start to question the risks of smoking (“My grandpa has been smoking for 30 years and he is totally healthy!”) and increase their positive beliefs about it (“It helps me concentrate!”). Scientists refer to this process as Cognitive Dissonance Reduction.
As you can see, our opinions and knowledge can determine our actions. Cognitive Dissonance Reduction might be behind endorsing unhealthy habits. After falling off the fitness wagon, you start to underestimate the importance of physical activity to reduce bad feelings (i.e., guilt and shame), which makes it harder to bounce back. If you binge-watched a whole series on Netflix and feel like you wasted a day of your life, you might justify it by calling it me-time. Cognitive dissonance might be more common than your first thought. Where can you identify it in your own life?
Now that you understand cognitive dissonance, you might be curious about how it affects other aspects of life. Read this blog, to get an insight into how it can impact your relationships too.
There are lots of external influences that shape our behavior. People with glamorous lifestyles on Instagram, what we see on television, and even on billboards on the road have an impact on us. We tend to like what we are being exposed to. Psychologists call this the mere exposure effect – we tend to develop a preference for familiar things. No doubt – this is a two edged sword. Social media can be an informative tool that helps us connect with like-minded people worldwide. We are bombarded by tips on how to live. Take these supplements, try out intermittent fasting, and go on a yoga retreat… Day by day, new trends arise, and it is easy to be confused about what’s actually helpful.
It is a war you can’t fight alone, but you are not weaponless. We tend to blame the networking sites and forget about our own responsibility. We can choose who to follow, and what resources we rely on. Don’t be afraid to rethink what serves you, clean up your following list, and unsubscribe.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Roza Sara Somlai is an Educational Psychology and Counselling student at Eotvos Lorand University. She is currently an intern at Willingness.
Chapman, S., Wong, W.L., & Smith, W. (1993). Self-exempting beliefs about smoking and health: Differences between smokers and ex-smokers. The American Journal of Public Health, 83(2), 215-219. doi:10.2105/AJPH.83.2.215
Fotuhi, O., Fong, G.T., Zanna, M.P., Borland, R., Yong, H., & Cummings, K.M. (2013). Patterns of cognitive dissonance-reducing beliefs among smokers: a longitudinal analysis from the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Four Country Survey. Tobacco Control, 22(1), 52-58. doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2011-050139
Smith, E. R., Mackie, D. M., & Claypool, H. M. (2015). (4th ed.). Psychology Press.
Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(2p2), 1.