Posted April 30, 2017 in Monthly News

Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships

A long time ago (1957), a social psychologist named Leon Festinger wrote about the human need to resolve “cognitive dissonance,” the clash between alternative thoughts and emotions, the clash between something labeled “good” and something labeled “bad.”

Festinger described the basic hypotheses of cognitive dissonance as follows:

1. The existence of dissonance [or inconsistency], being psychologically
    uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the
    dissonance and achieve consonance [or consistency].

2. When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person
    will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase
    the dissonance.[57]

Dissonance reduction can be achieved by changing behavior, changing cognition, or selectively acquiring new information or opinions. To use Festinger’s example of a smoker who has knowledge that smoking is bad for his health, the smoker may reduce dissonance by choosing to quit smoking, by changing his thoughts about the effects of smoking (e.g., smoking is not as bad for your health as others claim), or by acquiring knowledge pointing to the positive effects of smoking (e.g., smoking prevents weight gain).[58]

Smoking provides a pretty clear example of how someone might resolve the dissonance caused by the conflict between enjoying a particular behavior but not wanting to experience the logical consequences of continuing the behavior. Before Festinger came up with the idea for cognitive dissonance, the common expression was “on the one hand, X, but on the other hand Y.” It’s in the language, but people aren’t inclined to say, “Gee, I’m experiencing cognitive dissonance.” My grandmother used to refer to the concept of wanting to “have your cake but eat it, too.” That saying refers to having to choose between two incompatible desirables, but if you are stuck between a rock and a hard place, neither choice is good.

When two individuals in a relationship have different desires, both experience cognitive dissonance that needs to be reduced if the relationship is to continue. As a simple example, consider something as “easy” as deciding what to have for dinner: One person wants “Chinese.” The other wants “Mexican.” While making that decision on any particular evening is probably not going to lead to divorce, the failure to establish equity in making of dinner decisions, could easily do so. People will accept the short end of the stick on occasion, but most balk at accepting it all the time. This example depends, of course, on time and place. In previous generations, the husband almost always got his way. At work, the “boss” usually gets his or her way. In some cultures, men usually get their way. The way decisions are made reflect the relative power of those involved the process. In most cases, the individuals involved never question the underlying morality of the social power structures that lead to such decisions.

For the most part, culture and social conditioning establish behavioral expectations. When the vast majority of relationships were established in previous times, men and women would have grown up in the same culture and would have had the same basic expectation for “what a man does” and “what a woman does.” A history of cultural expectations tends to reduce cognitive dissonance associated generally accepted behaviors. When cultures change quickly in unexpected ways, cognitive dissonance skyrockets. Think about what things were like in the US after Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. The bitter feelings still run pretty deep in some individuals. Giving women the right to vote, Women’s Suffrage, also produced significant cognitive dissonance for many (although I don’t think there were any lynchings). Also consider what we have been witnessing this past election cycle, with the fears generated by “true believers” on both sides. Would you believe that this last election cycle has led Republicans and Democrats to hate each other?

Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, you have probably lost at least one friend because of the cognitive dissonance generated by differences in political affiliation. This isn’t the first time in US history this has happened, of course. If you are old enough, you can probably remember the turmoil created by the Vietnam War, with the rallying cry of, “Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?” The conflict was easily as bitter as what we are experiencing today, and individuals did what they could to reduce their cognitive dissonance. In those days, much like today, we associated primarily with those who shared our political views.

It’s easy to see cognitive dissonance at work when you consider such major cultural conflicts. The same kinds of conflicts, however, occur between (and among) any two (or more) people in any relationship, and especially in close, male-female relationships. And it’s not just what to have for dinner, although certainly dietary differences cause plenty of cognitive dissonance. In most relationships, dissonance can be reduced by “taking turns,” whether “this week Chinese; next week Mexican,” or going to a restaurant that offers both options. As is easy to see in politics, the most serious difficulties occur when those involved are not satisfied with personal decisions but insist that others make the same decision, as in the case of abortion: Not only don’t I want one, you’re not going to be allowed to have one, either. It is, of course, comparatively easy for a man to say No to having an abortion.

Even when the issues are comparatively small and personal, such as who sleeps on which side of the bed, or the proper temperature for home heating and cooling, cognitive dissonance can and will occur. A long time ago I was teaching a master’s level class in business communication in which one of my students asked a question about the way her “friends” had changed. She had lived in one location where she had established close relationships with a group of people through high school and undergraduate college work. She moved away to take a job. Three years later, she went back home very much looking forward to reuniting with those who had been her friends. They didn’t want to have anything to do with her. She said, “I still thought about them the same way” and asked “Why did they change?” When she asked them what had happened, the reply was basically, “You didn’t call. You didn’t write.” The rest of the class and I understood what had happened.” Cognitive dissonance occurs over time and place as well as between people in the same time and place.

My sense is that cognitive dissonance is always present to a greater or lesser degree when people interact. Reasonable people are better able to compromise than those who insist, My way or the highway. For this reason, we need to be aware of our own lines in the sand and those of others, especially those who are close to us.

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