Cognitive dissonance has become a buzz term. People use it to describe inconsistent or contradictory behaviour.
Cognitive dissonance however is a psychological experience that we all face daily that can really drive behaviour. If harnessed, it can lead to long-term pro-health and fitness behaviour change.
What is Cognitive Dissonance
The theory states that we are always striving for internal consistency. Cognitive dissonance describes the uncomfortable feeling you have when you are made aware of two conflicting internal beliefs, or a conflict between an internal belief and a behaviour. How we resolve that conflict is key.
Examples of Cognitive Dissonance
A common example of cognitive dissonance is smoking behaviour. When a smoker is asked whether they believe smoking’s bad for them, they might say that it is. When asked then why they smoke a packet a day, this creates conflict that must be alleviated in some way.
They can either alter their behaviour or alter their belief, meaning they will either take steps to stop smoking (the more challenging or arduous route), or they will change their views on whether smoking is really that bad for them. They might even say that they are aware of how bad it is, but health isn’t a priority for them. Either will bring about relief from that internal conflict, but only one will lead to a more healthy lifestyle.
Cognitive Dissonance in Health and Fitness Behaviours
Another clear example of cognitive dissonance surrounds healthy eating and training. If you believe that fitness is important and is something you value — you’re reading a Life Fitness blog so that is an indicator — but you are overweight, or you haven’t been to the gym for a couple of weeks (or months), this should create internal conflict. Some cognitive dissonance.
Alleviating that dissonance can only come from going to the gym and getting back to your program, or minimising your values and feelings about health and fitness. Option two is not advisable.
Cognitive Dissonance in Health Research
Cognitive dissonance has been studied as a potential strategy for driving positive health behaviours in people.
A recent study asked participants to share their views on the importance of regular exercise for health and wellbeing. One group was asked to also reflect on a time when they thought about exercising but chose instead to be sedentary. The control group was not asked this question. They were just asked whether they valued regular exercise.
The results showed that those who valued exercise and were also asked to reflect on a time when they chose not to exercise, experienced dissonance. This led to a shift in attitudes, with this group taking steps to plan their next workout.
The group that was asked to just reflect on their views about exercise did not experience dissonance. They therefore did not make any plans to exercise, whether they valued exercise or not. It’s the acknowledgement of the dissonance that drives the behaviour.
How can we use it to our advantage?
The research suggests that the key is to really be aware of the two opposing forces causing the dissonance. Thinking deeply about that conflict should drive you to take action.
Just acknowledging our values and not considering our behaviours, or even to just be in a hurry to resolve the internal conflict is likely to lead us to make the easier choice. That is, to minimise our beliefs in the thing we’re trying to achieve.
When presented with the conflict, will you reduce or minimise your personal value in fitness to match your behaviour, or will you make the decision to get to the gym tonight and deliver the behaviours required to match your beliefs?
Cooper, J., and Feldman, L. A. (2019) Helping the “couch potato”: A cognitive dissonance approach to increasing exercise in the elderly. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.