Occasionally, something will happen that is just “off” enough that it will simultaneously catch me off-guard and force me out of my comfort zone. The feeling is sometimes very subtle, and usually a little comical, so much so that it may be hard to articulate exactly what about the situation is making me uneasy. When this happens, I have learned to identify that squirmy sentiment as one of “Cognitive Dissonance.”
Cognitive Dissonance is the “state of mental discomfort that occurs when a person’s attitudes, thoughts, or beliefs (or, cognitions) conflict.”1 As humans, we have a tendency to constantly seek consistency among our many presumptions about how the world works. When the world around us doesn’t map to our understandings, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we have mechanisms that quickly help us back to the state of mental comfort, or consonance. Consonance occurs when two cognitions are in agreement, and a state of comfort is achieved.
So yesterday morning, when Will Evans (@semanticwill) shared this picture of Cognitive Dissonance, I thought it was perfect example to write a post about.
In this situation, clearly, there is something awry. Should we stop, or should we go? Well, luckily for us, any one of three mechanisms will immediately kick in to quickly get us back to a state of consonance to resolve (literally) this mixed signal.
- The first option is to reduce the importance of the conflict. In this case, thinking “I don’t need the signal, there are no cars coming anyway” could be a way to minimize any reliance on the signal.
- The second option is to add consonant cognitions. By adding another element, I can chose to delay the decision, and think “Oh, whatever, I’ll just turn the corner and cross at the next light,” or as Will did, think “Look at this example of Cognitive Dissonance; I am going to take a picture of it.” By virtue of adding another element of our own choosing, we regain control of the situation through other means.
- Finally, the third option is to remove or change the dissonant cognition. An example of this third option would be, “I’ll use the traffic light to make a decision of whether to cross or not.”
Any of these three mechanisms will get us back (or at least closer) to our happy place.
Further Reading on Cognitive Dissonance
1. A Theory Cognitive Dissonance by Leon Festinger, Row, Peterson and Company, 1957.
2. Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, Jill Butler, Rockport Publishers, 2010, p. 46-47.