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Cognitive Dissonance and Conflict

Cognitive Dissonance and Conflict

Author: Marlene Johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand the idea of cognitive dissonance and its potential role in creating and resolving conflict

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Everybody at some point in their life has done something they don't feel very good about, something that violates a principle, a value, a belief that's important to them. And you know when you've done this it doesn't feel very good, because you feel like you're in conflict with yourself. Your behavior is not matching what you believe.

There's actually a term for this. And it's called cognitive dissonance. I'm Marlene. And today I'd like to talk with you about cognitive dissonance and its role in conflict.

Let's start by defining that term, cognitive dissonance. It's a state in which the mind holds two or more incompatible thoughts or beliefs. OK. So you've got two or more thoughts or beliefs. And they're incompatible. It doesn't feel very good.

Now we can refer to these thoughts or beliefs as cognitions. A cognition is a general term for evaluating, integrating, interpreting thoughts or beliefs. So we want our beliefs and our thoughts to be consistent, the way we behave to be consistent with how we feel we should be or want to behave.

And when that doesn't happen, we find ourselves out of sync with that. It's an unpleasant state. So we try to alter that unpleasant state by integrating or justifying or in some cases rejecting one of these thoughts or beliefs because it is incompatible.

Let me give you a couple of examples here of how this works. You work at the office. And you've been going into the supply room.

And you've been taking some office supplies. You've needed them. You brought them home. You haven't taken very many things. But you keep going back every week. And you take a little bit more.

Now you hold that honesty and not stealing is very important. You think of yourself as a person of integrity. You would never go into a store and steal. And so the fact that you've been taking things and more and more things each week bothers you a little bit because it's in conflict with the belief that you are an honest person and stealing is wrong.

So you have some choices here on how you're going to deal with this internal conflict. You could integrate what you're doing here, so you can make it fit. Perhaps you'll tell yourself, well, you know, I worked overtime and I didn't get paid extra for it. And so I'm just kind of taking my due here.

Or they get paid a whole lot more at the top levels and I don't get paid that much. And this is my way of sort of making that inequality more equal. Or I only took a few things. I didn't take that much. It's not really stealing. It's not really stealing.

So you might try to justify or integrate. Or you could simply say, you know, I got to quit doing this, because it's stealing. And I don't believe in stealing. So that's one example.

There could be another example where you believe health is important and you want to eat a good diet. That's very important to you. You pride yourself on eating healthy, fruits and vegetables and grains.

But you have this bad habit. On cold winter nights you want to sit on the couch and eat chips and chocolate. So you try to justify it.

Well, I got these chocolates as a gift. I mean, I have to eat them. It's better than sitting here and drinking a bottle of wine. I had a hard day. I got to relax somehow.

Oh, it's only once in a while. I only do it during January when it's really cold. I don't do this all the time.

So if you've ever tried to justify or integrate an inconsistency this way, you know what I mean by cognitive dissonance. So how does this play out in a conflict? Well, how we choose to express this dissonance, whether we're justifying it or rejecting it or in some way trying to integrate it can either escalate a conflict or de-escalate it.

Let me give you an example here. You have some immigrant neighbors that have moved in to your neighborhood. They're from a culture that's different than everybody else who lives on the block and there are a few prejudices. And so you find people shunning the neighbors, calling them lazy, those people, labeling them in ways that are not very flattering.

And you begin to participate in this talk with your neighbors about these people that you don't even really know. But you've always considered yourself a fair-minded person, someone who's not prejudiced. And here you are sitting around talking about them in a way that's not flattering. And it's leading to tensions on the block.

You can try to integrate this by saying, well, you know, I know that a lot of those people are dishonest. And I know there's a lot of truth in this. And maybe they deserve this.

Or I feel a little unsafe. I don't want to go over there and risk it. My neighbors are probably right, whatever you tell yourself to integrate it. Or you might-- and that can escalate, of course, the conflict, the feelings of tension in the neighborhood.

Or you can decide to reject this because it does not fit your core belief of being a person whose fair-minded and open and doesn't engage in rumors and gossip. So you reject it. This is wrong. I don't know those people. I have no right to judge them.

And if you take that stance, then you might de-escalate the conflict. You have a better chance of de-escalating it because you're standing firm with what you believe here. And you're not going to participate in the behavior that you find objectionable.

This could happen at work, one more example here at work. You find yourself with a coworker competing for a promotion. You know that it's between the two of you. And you both work hard.

You know that there's a project, a very important project this coworker's involved with. We'll call him Jack. And you actually have some information that would be helpful to that project. You know he wants this information.

You lied about the fact that you had it. No, you didn't have that. You hadn't seen it. You know that without this information he's not going to be able to do his best work on the project.

Now you may try to justify this with your belief that you are a person of integrity by saying, well, it's not my responsibility to get this stuff for him. He could find it on his own. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there. Why should I give him this information?

And yet you know you've lied. And you know that according to your beliefs, this is not the right thing to do. You have the information. You should be giving it to him.

So you can go ahead and continue to justify your behavior. You've already told one lie. Maybe you'll tell another lie. You could escalate the conflict here, this potential conflict with your coworker.

Or you could decide to reject this cognition, this belief which is in dissonance with your core value and decide that, no, I have to give him the information. Maybe it'll allow them to look better than me and he'll get the promotion. But I just can't sit here and honestly continue to lie about the fact that I'm withholding information that is important to this person's career.

So those are a couple of examples of how you can weigh the dissonance here. You can decide in one way or another to either integrate, justify something which could potentially escalate a conflict, or you're going to reject a belief that's in conflict with a core value you have that would de-escalate the conflict. Of course, the incidents here, sometimes they're more serious. Sometimes they're less serious. But every time we feel cognitive dissonance, whether it's in small things or larger issues where there is a real potential conflict, how we choose to respond will either escalate or de-escalate the conflict.

So I've enjoyed being part of this tutorial. And I look forward to next time.

  • Cognition

    A general term for evaluating, integrating, interpreting, etc. thoughts or beliefs.

  • Cognitive Dissonance

    A state in which the mind holds two or more incompatible thoughts or beliefs.