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Cognitive Dissonance: Why we’d rather change our thoughts than behaviours

April 11, 2011

In the last two blog entries, I wrote about cognitive-behavioural theory and how it explains intimate partner aggression. The main tenet in these blogs was that when an individual perpetrates aggression, they usually engage in biased forms of self-talk (thoughts) that ultimately lead to violent and aggressive behaviours. In today’s blog, I will identify one of the cognitive processes that all humans (whether or not we have been victims or perpetrators of abuse) use for rationalizing behaviours.

Cognitive Dissonance: Changing our Thoughts to Rationalize Abuse

In 1956, Leon Festinger came up with a theory called cognitive dissonance. This theory states that when our thoughts and expectations are challenged by reality, we become mentally uncomfortable. In order to avoid or minimize this cognitive discomfort, we end up changing our original thoughts and opinions in order to justify what is happening. In other words, when there is dissonance between our expectations and reality, we end up changing our thoughts and beliefs rather than our behaviours.

In the context of unhealthy relationships, cognitive dissonance explains why individuals will often blame themselves or minimize the abuse in their lives. According to this theory, when individuals are being abused (either verbally, psychologically, or physically), they may change their thoughts in order to justify their current predicament. For example, they may say to themselves, “If only I wouldn’t make my partner so jealous, he (she) would be a lot nicer to me. It must be my fault.” By changing our thoughts (i.e., telling ourselves that we are the reason for the abuse in our lives), we are alleviating the cognitive tension brought on by the reality that we are in a relationship with someone who is unhealthy.

Perpetrators of abuse also experience cognitive dissonance. For example, humans intuitively know that it is morally wrong to hurt another individual. However, in order to avoid dealing with the cognitive dissonance of abusing someone they supposedly ‘love,’ perpetrators will change their thoughts in order to justify their abusive behaviours. “They made me do it,” or, “I love them so much that I end up doing crazy things,” are examples of altered thoughts used to justify dissonant behaviours.

Cognitive Dissonance: Justifying our Addictions

Addicts use the same principle. For example, when smokers are confronted with scientific information that smoking is harmful to their health, they will often find ways to rationalize or justify their behaviours. They may say, “Well, if smoking doesn’t kill me, something else will.” Or, “Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer. Many people who don’t smoke also get lung cancer.” These statements are indications that the smoker is experiencing cognitive dissonance. They are trying to alter their thoughts in order minimize the tension brought on by their in-congruent behaviours.

Hoping this bit of knowledge provides you with personal growth,

Dr. Richard Amaral,

  1. Thanks for this post Richard.

    As I was reading, I started to wonder about the ways in which I might have rationalized eating unhealthy foods in the past (okay, yesterday).

    Also, what are your in-session treatment interventions for helping clients work through “cognitive tensions”?

    Thanks and keep posting! This is great work.

    Derrick Shirley

    • Hi Derrick,

      Thanks for the question…

      Just as you became aware of your rationalizations, so too is my goal within the counselling session: To become aware of the self-talk we may be using to rationalize unhealthy behaviours. Once we become aware of these thoughts, we can do two things. Firstly, we can challenge our thoughts; and/or, we can change our behaviours so that they are congruent with the image (and thoughts) of who we want to be.

      Also, keep in mind that rationalizations are not always unhealthy. When we have been victimized, or experience something unpleasant, our rationalizations can help to lessen the impact of the traumatic event. “Rationalization” is a type of defense mechanism and can be used to protect us from dealing with something that we might not be ready to deal with.

      Thanks again,

      • That is awesome Richard.

        Awareness is the key. Without awareness we cannot consciously control our behaviors. Control is not a bad word. 🙂 Without that level of control all we can do is react to every situation that comes our way.

        Keep sharing your thoughts – They always make me think!


  2. Richard, you are amazing. I was just reading up on conflict between our thoughts and reality – shabang! There you are with this amazing article.

    Thanks for taking the time to share this with us – very informative.

    Question: What is your view point on: Our consistent thoughts control our behaviors?

    Miss our great conversations.

    • Hey Fred! Glad that you came across my blog!

      In future blogs, I’ll be writing about “Stages of Change” – a theoretical model that explains the various stages we go through when we want to change specific behaviours. Related to your comment, the first few “stages of change” involve an assessment of our thoughts and self-talk. These stages are known as “Pre-contemplation” and “Contemplation” – thinking about change. So, with regards to your question, “stages of change” theory would say that consistent, regular thoughts about change is a critical part for facilitating a permanent change in behaviour.

      Yep…I miss our conversations as well…

      • Beautiful – Can we bottle your brain to take home with us. 🙂

        Excited to read your posts on Change.

  3. Great dialogue fellas. This brings back some of the good ole’ days in Cowtown 🙂

    Love the feedback Richard on not all rationalizations being unhealthy.

    You had mentioned about “becoming aware of self-talk…” This may not be related to cognitive dissonance, but many of my clients feel overwhelmed when they realize how negative and critical some of their self-talk has been.

    What strategies do you suggest for people to help them “tune in” to their “self-talk” in order to change it?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. If you want to change your mood, change your behaviour | Knowledge For Growth
  2. Psychology For Growth » If you want to change your mood, change your behaviour
  3. Psychology for Growth » If you want to change your mood, change your behaviour

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