Q: Are there ways to treat cognitive dissonance?


Whether we realize it or not, we have all experienced cognitive dissonance. It is a universal human affliction that transcends culture, race, nationality, and religion. There is no cure, but there are things you can do to treat it.

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the theory that our brains cannot hold two conflicting ideas at the same time.  For example: when people smoke even though they know smoking causes cancer, they are experiencing cognitive dissonance. When that happens, it’s uncomfortable, even unbearable, and our brain quickly responds by rejecting or distorting the information that challenges our preexisting beliefs. It also seeks out new information that confirms our point of view to reduce that discomfort and restore balance. Social psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term in 1957, and through his research, was able to show that when dissonance is present, people will actually avoid situations and information that cause that feeling. 

That finding has important implications for news consumers and can lead to the phenomenon known as an echo chamber. This is when you are exposed only to news that reinforces your beliefs in a sort of feedback loop.  Algorithms on Facebook, for example, take into account who your friends are as well as the stories you click on to determine which news stories will appear in your feed. A study at ScienceMag.org found that people naturally interact more with stories that match their political ideology, and Facebook is more than happy to oblige. Here’s the problem:  Echo chambers can lead to tribalism and deep divisions as people interact with completely different news stories and political realities.

So here’s the treatment:

  1. Acknowledge your own biases. That’s why we have you do the Project Implicit tests. Once you are aware of your own implicit biases, you will recognize the sensation of cognitive dissonance and then can seek out views that challenge your own beliefs (key lesson #5 of the course!) The more you do that, the less discomfort you will feel over time with views that contradict your own.
  2. When consuming news that doesn’t fit your world view, try to get past any initial emotional reaction and engage the critical thinking part of your brain. Analyze the story by looking for verification, independence, and accountability and then by asking yourself: What do I know? How do I know it? What don’t I know?
  3. Actively engage with people and news outlets that you disagree with. (I know this is a hard one for lots of people, but you can start off in small doses.) The “engage” part means being open to new perspectives and information that might change your point of view.
  4. Avoid confirmation bias: the tendency to seek out views that confirm your preexisting beliefs. That means getting out of your filter bubble on social media. You can reduce the information captured by algorithms by opening a private window when surfing online. You can also manage what information Google tracks and shares about you in your privacy settings.  (https://myaccount.google.com/data-and-personalization.) Other websites offer similar features, and Facebook is rolling out a new feature to prevent it from tracking your online activity once you’re off Facebook. (https://www.facebook.com/off-facebook-activity) It’s called Off-Facebook Activity, and Facebook says it gives you more control of your data while on other apps and websites.

Knowing that your brain is naturally going to avoid the stress and anxiety of cognitive dissonance is the first step to conquering this very human condition. And while it’s important to give news and opinions that conflict with yours a critical assessment, don’t forget to occasionally apply that same scrutiny to your own beliefs.