Cover Image for Cognitive Dissonance

Behavioral Science

Key concepts

Mental discomfort justifies behavior

(For a 30 second explanation go to

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There you are, looking at that piece of chocolate cake, struggling between your desire to devour it and your plan to stay fit.

‘Should I eat it or not?’

So you tell yourself that you love chocolate cake, you are actually kind of hungry, and you had such a hard day. All of the sudden your decision to cut-down sugary foods is outweighed by all those arguments. You eat and enjoy every crumble.

Or, you decide to stick with the plan and walk away. This way you avoid guilt, take care of your health and feel good about yourself.

Either way, you decreased that uncomfortable sensation of having two opposite ideas on your mind. And, you have arguments to be right in both scenarios. Our mind convincing ourselves.

Thing is, having two opposing ideas about the same thing creates an unpleasant sensation that we can’t handle very well. It’s a psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. So what do we do? We walk away from it. It turns out we have several clever strategies for doing that.

Let’s call that idea that is making us uneasy the ‘buggin’ idea’. How does it create discomfort? By crashing with previous beliefs that we hold true. The more beliefs it collides with, or the more important ideas it is incongruent with, the worse it is. 

So, what do we do with it?

  1. We remove the buggin’ idea. For instance we tell ourselves ‘This was just a one-day leave on my no-sugary treats plan’

  1. We reduce its importance ‘it’s not such a big deal, just one piece of cake won’t make such a big impact if I stick to the plan the rest of the week’

  1. We add counterarguments: I’m hungry / I’ll get a headache if I don’t eat / I deserve it / it’s vegan.
    What’s one argument against four?

  1. We increase the importance of the counterarguments. I can’t get a headache right now, it will kill the rest of my afternoon!

Whatever way we go, the result is the same: you have chosen a behavior and that discomfort has gone. After all, you had good reasons to behave like you did.


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