Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort or tension that can occur when we hold two or more conflicting beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time. It can happen, for example, when information becomes available that questions our opinions or beliefs. The situation makes us uncomfortable, to the point that in many cases we’ll choose to ignore the new information so we don’t have to change our minds. The desire to maintain internal consistency may stop us from changing our mind in the face of evidence.
Conceding to cognitive dissonance can lead to irrational situations. This gets worse if we worry that other people are going to judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves. Borrowing from Ryan Holiday, it certainly doesn’t help that ego is the enemy.
Even when being aware of cognitive dissonance, it’s very difficult to evade it. Annie Duke shares in her book Quit that Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman recommends finding someone to help us: “What everybody needs is the friend who really loves them but does not care much about hurt feelings in the moment.” Kahneman’s friend in this context is fellow Nobel laureate Richard Thaler. If Daniel Kahneman, whose life’s work has been studying cognitive biases and decision errors, thinks he needs a coach when making decisions, probably we also need one.
While cognitive dissonance can lead to very bad decisions, it can also be used as a powerful tool for change. For example, committing in public to a goal, or asking someone to act as an accountability partner has a powerful effect. We feel compelled to advance in our goals rather than feel the tension of the incoherence between what we say and what we do.
That’s one of the reasons why peer-advisory and mastermind groups are so powerful. We put ourselves in a safe environment where we feel compelled to make progress while receiving support from our peers.