Cognitive dissonance theory was developed by Leon Festinger in 1957, and, for an old-ish theory is in very good health today. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when trying to reconcile our beliefs with our actions and cognitive dissonance theory explains how we try and reduce this.
An excellent example to illustrate this is teenage smoking. We all have the clear evidence that smoking leads to heart disease and/or lung cancer in the majority of people who smoke. At the very least it reduces lung function and gives you a hacking cough and some breathlessness, especially if you catch a cold or have a chest infection. This is often when most people try their hardest to give up. Yet 19% of UK adults smoke, and 40% of these began smoking before they were 16. (UK Cancer Research statistics, 2017). So how do teenagers deal with the cognitive dissonance created by smoking?
Firstly, fewer teenagers smoke now than ever before. So by not starting, they are avoiding cognitive dissonance in that their actions mirror their beliefs – they are what is called ‘consonant’. Others try and give up, and while the dangers of ‘vaping’ remain fairly unknown, this is a viable alternative that allows them to argue that the tar, and not the nicotine addiction is the problem, and they are solving that. Those who are already too addicted to give up have to change their beliefs, as the discomfort of knowing that you are negatively impacting your health becomes unbearable.
They do this through statements like: ‘While I’m young and doing sports, the impact will be minimal, and I’ll give up when I get older. Therefore it won’t affect me.’ Or they rationalise that they have never had a cough in their life and can still run and play sports better than most adolescents their age. Or they admit that they would like to give up, but it’s just too difficult at the moment, as they’re under a lot of stress, but will definitely do it later.
The point at which teenagers and young people who smoke give up is when they cannot ignore their underlying beliefs and the facts any longer. This usually happens when someone close to them dies of a smoking-related disease or is told by their doctor to give up before they do die of it. Sometimes, the sociocultural approach can explain smoking or non-smoking behaviour: as friendships change, the teenager may find him/herself socialising largely with a non-smoking group, and the attractions of smoking become less. The cognitive dissonance then becomes too large to ignore as friends dismiss your arguments and rationalisations to point out the harm you are doing yourself.
Cognitive dissonance theory can explain our behaviour while (not) dieting, or when feeling a dislike for a certain person, or even when choosing a political party to support. We show a confirmation bias, by selectively attending to information that supports our decision, and closing our ears to dissenting voices.