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Cognitive dissonance

30 August 2019 - By Paul Sills

Psychology plays a fundamental part in the mediation process. There are five key psychological traits that emerge most often in mediation: confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, reactive devaluation, reciprocation bias and Hanlon’s razor. This article examines cognitive dissonance and follows on from my previous discussion of cognitive bias.

A woman with her head in her hands

Cognitive dissonance refers to the mental discomfort felt when our mind entertains two contradictory concepts at the same time. This theory encompasses the idea that we are constantly striving for balance between our beliefs and behaviours. If our beliefs and behaviours are not harmonised we feel uncomfortable, finding ourselves in a state of cognitive dissonance. Despite the paradox that is life itself, we struggle to hold as true competing interests, theories or stories in our mind at any one time. Being able to do so is a fundamental trait of a great negotiator/mediator. In addition, it is often essential for the parties in dispute if they are to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Most of us can look at life through only one lens — that of our perspective. The perspective of others does not normally feature in our autobiographical way of looking at conflict and the causes of that conflict. Yet the ability to see an issue through the lens of another is a fundamental part of good conflict resolution and is a cornerstone of empathy.

As explained by Carol Tavris, co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): “Cognitive dissonance is what we feel when the self-concept — I’m smart, I’m kind, I’m convinced this belief is true — is threatened by evidence that we did something that wasn’t smart, that we did something that hurt another person, that the belief isn’t true.”

Essentially, cognitive dissonance challenges our sense of self.

Irrational behaviour

Cognitive dissonance features when we engage in irrational behaviour. For example, smokers are aware of the harm that smoking causes but nevertheless continue to smoke. When knowledge of a behaviour differs from the behaviour actually demonstrated, cognitive dissonance occurs. This may be experienced more intensely when the belief in question relates to our personal selves, or significant value is placed on the particular belief/activity. The unsettled feeling arising from cognitive dissonance prompts and motivates us to get rid of the inconsistency in order to feel better. A person experiencing dissonance has three options to achieve this — change their behaviour, change the belief, or rationalise the behaviour. So, going back to our example, a smoker can stop smoking (behaviour), declare that they enjoy smoking more than the risk of harm (belief), or find research disproving the evidence that smoking kills (rationalise).

Cognitive dissonance theory was developed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956 as a result of a study of a doomsday cult published in his book When Prophecy Fails. The cult members believed that the world would be destroyed by a flood and they would be rescued by a flying saucer. Festinger was particularly interested in what would happen to the cult when no apocalypse occurred. While some members left the community, many began to reinterpret the evidence to suggest the flood had not occurred because of their dedication. Festinger observed that the group:doubled down on its belief and said God had simply decided to spare the members, coping with their own cognitive dissonance by clinging to a justification”.

Psychologist Saul McLeod has also explained that “the positive spin we place on outcomes of efforts we have invested significant amounts of time in can also be explained by cognitive dissonance”. That is, if we have invested time into a task that turns out badly, instead of writing it off as a waste of time, we often convince ourselves otherwise. We decide that, in fact, we did not spend too much time on the task, it was a positive learning experience, and/or it was enjoyable regardless of the outcome. This reaction allows us to avoid feelings of regret and self-pity and maintains the desired balance between belief and action.

Unsurprisingly, cognitive dissonance plays a substantial part in the conflict resolution process. To address feelings of dissonance in a conflict situation, people can either: completely disregard ideas that clash with their own (often becoming angry and hostile), ignore what they are confronted with, or use new pieces of information as opportunities to make changes in their lives. The latter strategy is the most beneficial way of dealing with cognitive dissonance as it allows us to re-evaluate who we are, if required. Unfortunately, it is the least used strategy in conflict — we do not take the opportunity to use conflict as a learning tool and motivation for change. However, it is important that we remain open to ideas that challenge our pre-existing beliefs.

Achieving cognitive harmony

The next step is to display the confidence and willingness to change our behaviours and or/beliefs in order to achieve cognitive harmony. This is easier said than done – people often attack the messenger instead of evaluating the new information and the message itself. However, the ability to recognise new information and adjust behaviour accordingly is a challenging, but beneficial, skill for resolving conflict.

Apologies are also a significant yet difficult part of the conflict resolution process. If required to apologise we may experience feelings of dissonance that we attempt to avoid by refusing to back down. This creates a roadblock to settling disputes.

A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology discovered that those who refused to apologise after making a mistake had increased self-esteem and feelings of power compared to those who did apologise. Tyler Okimoto, an author of the study, noted that: In a way, apologies give power to their recipients”. In saying this, the study concluded that those who did not apologise suffered more negative long-term consequences — relationships were damaged where there were no apologies, and the conflicts intensified. While avoiding feelings of cognitive dissonance may appeal in the short-term, conflicts are more likely to be resolved efficiently and adequately if apologies are made.

It is very important to recognise cognitive dissonance and its effect on our thought processes. Self-awareness is key to minimising the negative feelings experienced through cognitive dissonance. Our minds go to great lengths to preserve our sense of identity, so knowing what dissonance feels like helps us to become more mindful and efficient thinkers. When we manifest feelings such as embarrassment, guilt, stress or confusion, it is useful to recognise that they are not signs that we are wrong. Instead, we can use them as indicators to explore the situation from a more impartial perspective, objectively questioning whether or not we are wrong.


Paul Sills paul.sills@paulsills.co.nz is an Auckland barrister and mediator, specialising in commercial and civil litigation. He is an AMINZ Mediation Panel member.

Last updated on the 30th August 2019