Mental Gymnastics : Realigning Attitudes and Behaviours

With Nicole LeBarr, PhD, Director of Behavioural Science

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Nicole LeBarr

PhD, Director of Behavioral Science

Today I wanted to cover what I feel is one of the most misused psychological concepts among market researchers. I hear a lot of people talk about this concept, but more often than not, it is misunderstood or incorrectly applied. That concept is Cognitive Dissonance.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive Dissonance Theory hypothesizes that we have a strong need for psychological consistency. What this means is that we are driven to ensure that our attitudes are aligned with our behaviour or that our individual attitudes are consistent with one another.

For example…
The behaviour of smoking cigarettes, with the attitude that smoking causes cancer.

The behaviour of driving a pick-up truck, with the conflicting attitudes that pick-ups are gas-guzzlers and terrible for the environment, while also being a person who cares about the environment and makes environmental choices.

Because we have a drive for consistency, we feel psychological tension (or "cognitive dissonance") when an attitude and a behaviour are at odds with one another. This psychological tension brought on with cognitive dissonance produces an actual physiological response in our bodies, making us feel uncomfortable. Therefore, when we feel the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we are highly motivated and driven to resolve the discrepancy.

Reducing Cognitive Dissonance
We can do so in a number of different ways…

The most direct way would be to modify the problematic behaviour.

In our case, we could trade-in the pick-up truck for something more fuel efficient. Often times though, changing the behaviour is difficult because 'what's done is done' - you've already made a behaviour that is inconsistent with your attitude.

Another option is to reject the attitude outright or change it - deciding that we actually don't care that much about the environment.

However, this can be difficult if it results in us feeling 'sleazy' - for instance telling ourselves we don't care about the environment, which is not socially acceptable in this day and age.

Because of these challenges, we will often take another route to resolving the dissonance by engaging in what I call cognitive gymnastics to make the attitude and behaviour less conflicting and maintain both of them.

Typically, this involves adding additional attitudes into the mix.

Justification: make it seem like you had no choice but to engage in the behaviour or that there were other better reasons that justify it conflicting with the attitude.

Trivialization: make it seem like this is a one-off situation and not a big deal.

Reframing: leverage comparison to others to make it seem like our behaviour is not all that problematic.

So now you know that Cognitive Dissonance is a powerful motivator to align attitudes and behaviour, you can begin to see that it has some really interesting implications for consumer behaviour. For instance…

If you can get someone to make a behaviour - they will later align their attitude to be consistent with that.

Cognitive gymnastics give us some food for thought when thinking about barriers to purchase - informing what we need to overcome.

Now, normally, I would finish up with some practical marketing or brand examples of Cognitive Dissonance in action. But given that this is one of the most misused psychological concepts, I'd love to hear your best examples of Cognitive Dissonance in action and then I can dive in deeper next week.