Cognitive Dissonance

What do you see? The bar in the middle of this image seems to blend from light gray to dark gray. 

In reality, the horizontal bar is solid gray and only the background is a color gradient.

Our brains are quite susceptible to deceit. Just hold a pencil up to one eye and look out the window – the pencil will appear see-through because your brain fills in missing information to complete the view. Magicians and illusionists have taken advantage of these shortcomings of our minds for centuries. 

If you think you are generally less deluded than other people, think again. A delusion is similar to a stealth computer virus – it operates unconsciously. Our brain’s quest to eliminate cognitive dissonance is one such phenomenon.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive relates to mental processes such as thinking, reasoning, forming opinions, and remembering.

The word dissonance describes a lack of harmony, a discord, clash or tension.

Cognitive dissonance is a ‘bad feeling’ that arises from holding two conflicting beliefs, attitudes, etc. at one time.

For example, a manager’s belief that he/she is a “well-liked, reputable and respected manager who inspires employees to do their best” is dissonant with information that suggests a dramatic increase in employee theft.

How does my mind respond to cognitive dissonance?

If cognitive dissonance exists, we are programmed to reduce it. 

The manager in the example is motivated to reduce the psychological tension by

  • Changing thoughts or behavior

  • Adding thoughts
    For example, the manager might think, “The data suggests employee theft, but it must be something else. Is it possible that one of our suppliers is ripping us off?” 

Our motivation to minimize cognitive dissonance can cause us to behave irrationally, justify a behavior or attitude, or experience other delusions in the form of cognitive biases.

How can I use this information?

Next time you catch yourself rationalizing (or feeling guilty, embarrassed, angry) [1], try to identify the two underlying, clashing cognitions.

Understanding and accepting our natural responses to cognitive dissonance can help you 

  • think more clearly when dealing with irrational employee behavior

  • increase self-awareness and make better decisions faster
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