Cognitive dissonance is commonly encountered and a widely studied area in social psychology. It refers to mental discomfort that occurs when a reality or outcome is not compatible with beliefs, wishes, stated objectives or ideals. The significance of the dissonance depends on why it occurs and how it is handled.


Elements of cognitive dissonance:

(1) distress or unpleasant feeling caused by a situation often involving a cognitive "conflict"

(2) mitigation of negative feelings (dissonance reduction) by "changing" attitudes in an attempt to reduce or to eliminate the conflict.


The distress or unpleasant feeling may be generated by:

(1) wanting to do or believing in 2 things that are mutually contradictory

(2) engaging or living in a high risk situation which one is unable or unwilling to leave

(3) wanting (becoming attached to) something that is impossible to attain

(4) regretting something that one also finds desirable

(5) hating someone that one loves

(6) wanting to engage in a dangerous habit yet afraid of the consequences, like smoking

(7) hearing that one's child is going to die yet dreaming of the child's future

(8) inconsistency in thoughts, actions, beliefs

(9) behaving badly against one's conscience


Mitigation of the distress can be done in a positive or negative manner.


Negative mitigation may take the form of:

(1) denial of the situation and refusing to think about it (pushing it out of conscious thught)

(2) denigration of one of the options

(3) addictive behavior that drives out or silences the thoughts

(4) avoidance or thought suppression


Positive mitigation may involve making difficult choices (confrontation) or acceptinig unpleasant facts about oneself or others.


While avoidance or suppression may be immediate solutions, they do not resolve the conflict. Failure to resolve the conflict can result in guilt, anger, embarassament or other response, sometimes associated with a seemingly unrelated but “safer” topic.


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