Why We Make Bad Choices – Cognitive Dissonance

This is a post in an ongoing series about the tricks our minds play on us which cause us to make poor decisions (known in psychology as cognitive biases). Learning about how we perceive and interpret the world around us is a critical part of self reflection, so I want to take some time and explain things in (hopefully) clear, understandable terms. While I’m going to use a fair amount of the language of psychology, I will also do my best to define things in ways those of us without degrees in the subject can understand. As always, feel free to ask questions in the comments if things aren’t clear.

Here we introduce the concept of cognitive dissonance, which is a key idea to understand for the rest of the series. It is summarized fairly easily as follows: when we hold two conflicting ideas, beliefs, or attitudes, we experience mental discomfort that we will naturally want to resolve.

I know, it sounds like pure psychobabble. But bear with me, as it truly is important to understand this.

Let’s say you are on a diet, but one day you slip up and eat several slices of greasy, delicious pepperoni pizza. Immediately afterwards, you feel guilty about your actions. One one hand, you hold the belief that you are a person capable of staying on a diet (because who wants to admit that they have no willpower); on the other hand, you just ate a slice of pizza, and you also know in your heart that pizza is far from a healthy food. This contradiction (“I eat healthy” versus “Pizza is bad for you”) causes you to experience mental angst.

The only way to resolve this is to change one or both beliefs so that they are no longer incompatible with each other. How we do this varies depending upon many things, but we’ll try to illustrate two possibilities.

First, we might minimize or belittle the idea that pizza is bad for you. Perhaps we think “Well, a couple slices isn’t that bad. I dabbed off some grease so the fat content must be lower.” If the pizza is no longer so unhealthy, then eating it doesn’t mean we broke our rule of eating only nutritious food.

Second, we might lessen the strictness or specificity of our belief that we eat healthily. Instead of “I eat a healthy diet”, we might substitute “I try to eat healthily, but I don’t do it all the time.” If we no longer believe that we are someone who always eats healthful food, then eating fatty pizza doesn’t contradict that carefully constructed image of ourselves.

Are either of these inherently bad ways of dealing with the discord between our two beliefs? You could probably argue on both sides. On the one hand, pepperoni pizza is likely unhealthy any way you look at it, but on the other hand giving ourselves permission to circumvent good behavior without specific reasons is not a good way to instill new habits.

What’s more important is simple awareness of this tendency, and considering it when reflecting upon our lives and the decisions we make. As you’ll come to see, this statement will likely be repeated throughout the series. If you gain nothing else from reading these posts, learn to be conscious of how our minds work. Understanding this is crucial, and it’s why I truly believe that everyone should learn a little bit of psychology. After all, what’s more important than knowing ourselves as human beings?

In the coming weeks and months we are going to learn more about the specific ways in which our mind tricks us and causes us to ignore or misinterpret important things in the world around us. Stay tuned, it should be an interesting ride.

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