The reasons we have for acting the way we do are diverse, as we explained in this previous article. And sometimes, they lead us to actions that are not consistent with our values. This creates cognitive dissonance, an internal tension theorized by Leon Festinger in 1957. This dissonance is felt when the individual is aware of the inconsistency between his cognitions and his actions. Faced with cognitive dissonance, we tend to justify our actions, to create an artificial coherence with our values, but we can also choose to change our behavior.

Cognitive dissonance : the symptom of an internal tension

It is possible that the discrepancy between our values or non-intentions and our behavior creates an internal tension. This is called cognitive dissonance, theorized by Leon Festinger in 1957 in his book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. It can only be felt when the individual is aware of the incoherence between his cognitions and his actions. Any behavior that is inconsistent with our intentions does not automatically lead to dissonance. 

Beyond serving to justify a behavior that opposes a vision, dissonance can appear in an attempt to : 

  • Minimizing irreversible choices: Storm becomes the best horse in the world (even though it is objectively slow) because we have just bet on it; 
  • Explaining inexplicable feelings: persuading oneself that the neighboring shopkeeper is obnoxious because one is jealous of him; 
  • Justifying an effort or a suffering: saying that the family meal at the other end of France was very nice whereas it was the scene of incessant disputes;
  • Justifying a behavior contrary to one’s values or vision: I was insulting to someone for no reason, but it’s because I had a bad day; or Reaffirming one’s previous beliefs when they no longer seem to make sense: reinterpreting the non-advent of a prophecy.

The ideals and the concern for coherence must not be transformed into autotyrany: the requirement must also be accompanied by benevolence towards ourselves, of tolerance towards our errors and our imperfections.

Christophe André, Three friends in search for wisdom

Note that the intensity of the dissonance varies according to the importance of the conflicting cognitions and their proportion. Moreover, the more painful the learning of our beliefs or behaviors is, the more difficult it will be to question them, because this would be tantamount to admitting that we have suffered for nothing in the past. The dissonance will be all the stronger.

Mitigating dissonance: change or justify 

To alleviate the discomfort created by cognitive dissonance, humans adopt one of three unconscious strategies.

The first of these is to change our behavior to one that is consistent with our value system. 

Example: I know that fast fashion contributes to the exploitation of vulnerable people, to the aggravation of inequalities and to the pollution of the environment. I therefore decide to change my consumer habits and buy second-hand products, less often and/or with ethical brands.

However, according to the researchers, most of the time, we try to justify our behavior rather than change it. This is the case when we retroactively modify the conflicting cognition. That is, we revise our beliefs, interpret events, create confirmation biases, or minimize the conflicting cognition. 

Example: not buying new clothes from unethical brands is too hard. For every piece I buy, I sell one back.

Finally, another solution is to rationalize our behavior by adding a new cognition. 

For example: I will continue to buy my clothes from the big brands but to compensate, I will not fly anymore. 

From dissonance to resonance 

When we feel a dissonance, it is recommended to question the source of this discomfort and to identify the values that have been shaken. They are surely very important to us at this particular moment in our lives. These are the ones that we must try to protect by making choices that are in line with them. Meditation as a means of introspection can be a way to know ourselves better, to know what our base value is and where our limits are.

When ethics reflect our inner qualities and guide our behavior, they are naturally expressed through our thoughts, words and actions, and become a source of inspiration for others.

Matthieu Ricard, The Quantum and the Lotus

When faced with a person who does not act in a way that is aligned with his or her set of values and knowledge, it is important to avoid pointing out the contradictory actions of a person who is experiencing cognitive dissonance: this is likely to be counterproductive, especially when the beliefs being questioned are shared by an entire community. 

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How do we bring about behavioral change?

It happens, and will probably happen again, that we make choices that we will come to regret. The important thing is to first understand why we make them: what prevented us from remaining faithful to our convictions or perceptions? This is what we can then work on. Behavioral studies have identified some methods for changing behavior. They can be applied to oneself or to others, but they must be adapted to each individual. 

Our motivations, whether they are benevolent, malevolent or neutral, color our actions. One cannot distinguish altruistic behavior from selfish behavior, a lie meant to do good from another uttered to harm, by the sole appearance of actions.

Matthieu Ricard, Altruism

Take the guilt out of it

First of all, it is better to avoid guilt: nobody is perfect. Everyone has experienced a discrepancy between their values, beliefs, knowledge or cognitions and the behavior they ended up adopting.  

Entrust your resolutions to others

Communicating your resolutions to others is a way of committing to not giving up in order not to disappoint (making sure it doesn’t become a taint). 

Establish an action plan 

Establishing an action plan that is coherent with our intentions is a self-regulation strategy that allows the appearance of new automatisms and allows us to fight against situations that we are unable to cope with. To be effective, it must be concrete and clear. 

Example: “When X and Y make inappropriate comments [situation], I intend to point out to them that they can hurt people [solution]. I want to stay calm and open a dialogue, either now or later. [actions]”. This is a simple pattern that can be adapted as needed: “I plan to do X behavior by doing Y when I encounter Z situation. It remains to ensure that we do not fall into dissonant automatisms. 

It is important to trust oneself, to believe in one’s ability to succeed in what one has set out to do. Valuing our successes reinforces our evolution and encourages progress.

Be informed

As stated at the beginning of this article, sometimes we don’t feel concerned about an issue, fail to see how our individual action could be beneficial to both ourselves and society, or refuse to act alone. It is recommended that we educate ourselves and inform people about the negative consequences of their current actions but also about the benefits or need for change. This communication must be personalized so that the recipients can feel concerned. This allows them to know how they may be affected and how their actions may affect others. 

By cultivating an altruistic mindset and realizing the interdependence of sentient beings, we realize that our actions inevitably have an impact on the lives of others. Buying eco-responsible and ethical products, for example, is a form of commitment to ensure that producers receive a fair wage that allows them to live a decent life. It is also a way of ensuring that they have been produced in a sustainable manner and therefore, act in favor of the preservation of the environment. 

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Creating the conditions for transformation 

When trying to inspire change, it is important to keep in mind that transformation can be difficult: compassion and encouragement are therefore necessary. To create the conditions for this transformation, we can use the COM-B method (capability, opportunity, motivation, behavior). Is the person physically and psychologically able to change? Does the person have the opportunity (social and psychological) to adopt a new behavior? And does the person have the motivation to do so? If any of these elements are missing, they must be created to facilitate change. 

This was the challenge of Innovations for Poverty Action’s intervention, as they realized that despite the lack of clean water and the existence of chlorine to treat water, people in Kenya were not using it. To remedy this, their team installed a chlorine dispenser next to the village water fountain. A visible, practical, accessible and effective solution: the rate of use of the purifier was 60-61% compared to 6-14% for the control group, even two years later.

If our behavior sometimes causes confusion or tension because it does not reflect our values or intentions, nothing is lost. We can always train ourselves to make sure we don’t repeat the same actions. Understanding why we act the way we do and trying to change it is not easy, but it is essential to stay in tune with ourselves, become more altruistic and participate in building a better world. 

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