Cognitive dissonance happens when you hold two conflicting thoughts in your mind at the same time — like loving both hamburgers and cows.

Cognitive dissonance is a theory in social psychology first proposed by Leon Festinger. According to this theory, cognitive dissonance describes the discomfort experienced when two cognitions are incompatible with each other.

A cognition is a piece of knowledge, such as a:

  • thought
  • attitude
  • personal value
  • behavior

This incompatibility (dissonance) can happen when you do something that goes against one of your values. Or maybe you learn a new piece of information that disagrees with a long-standing belief or opinion. For example, eating meat even though you adore animals.

As humans, we generally prefer for our world to make sense. Cognitive dissonance can be distressing. That’s why we often respond to cognitive dissonance by doing mental gymnastics to feel like things make sense again.

Some signs you may be experiencing cognitive dissonance may include:

  • discomfort before making a decision
  • feelings of guilt over past decisions
  • shame or embarrassment regarding a decision and hiding said decisions from others as a result
  • justification or rationalization of behavior
  • doing something out of social pressure, not true interest

Many situations can trigger cognitive dissonance. These can include:

  • receiving new information
  • experiencing social pressure
  • needing to make a choice

Some effects of cognitive dissonance can include:

In addition to these emotional experiences, cognitive dissonance can also inspire a change in your behavior or beliefs. Some of these changes can be positive, such as shifting problematic beliefs or harmful habits.

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Illustration by Brittany England

Here’s a look at some everyday examples of cognitive dissonance and how you might come to terms with them.

1. Picking up after your dog

Let’s say you have a dog that you take for daily walks around your neighborhood. Like any responsible dog owner, you carry plastic bags and always clean up after your dog.

One day, halfway through the walk, you realize you forgot the bags. And your dog chooses that moment to do his business.

You take a quick look along the street. No one’s around, so you call your dog and hustle away. Once home, you begin to feel guilty. You know it’s not right to leave your dog’s mess. What if someone steps in it or it ruins your neighbor’s garden?

“But it’s just the one time,” you tell yourself. You ran out of bags. You’ll replace them and always pick up after your dog in the future.

Besides, it’s not like you’re the only one who does it. You’ve seen other dogs’ messes in the neighborhood. If other people don’t pick up after their dogs, why should you have to?

2. Getting enough exercise

Chances are, you value your health. You may make a conscious effort to choose nutritious foods, try to avoid processed foods and soda, and shoot for eight hours of sleep every night.

But you spend most of your day sitting at your desk. You tell yourself it’s OK since you’re taking care of your health in other ways. You still feel guilty, though, because you know it’s important to be active.

You even joined a gym a while back, but you stopped going. Every time you see the membership tag on your keychain, it reminds you of that pesky truth — that exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle.

Finally, you decide to go to the gym. You start going to bed earlier and get up with enough time to work out. It’s hard at first, but instead of feeling guilty when you see the gym keychain, you feel proud of yourself.

3. Moving for love

You and your partner live in a large city. You love city life and can’t imagine living anywhere else. One day, your partner comes home from work with some news. They’ve received a promotion — in a small town four hours away. You’ll have to move.

You feel unhappy. You don’t want to move, but your partner is excited about the promotion and you want them to be happy. Little by little, you begin to consider the pros of living in a small town. You even read some articles on small-town living.

Small towns are safer, you think. There won’t be city traffic. The cost of living will be lower. You might even be able to get around town without having a car. Finally, you remind yourself that four hours isn’t so far after all. You’ll still be able to visit your friends and family often.

4. Being productive at work

At work, you have a fairly private cubicle. Your computer use isn’t monitored, and you often find yourself browsing the internet or even catching up on TV shows instead of working.

Sure, you eventually get your work done, but you know you could be doing more. You might feel guilty, knowing you’d be in trouble if anyone found out. But whenever you get bored, you find yourself online again.

You read an article about workplace productivity that says people are more productive when they work in short bursts and take frequent breaks. “I’m just increasing my productivity,” you tell yourself.

After all, you rarely take time off. And when you do work, you work hard. You should get to relax, too.

5. Eating meat

You consider yourself an animal lover. You’ve always had pets and, whenever possible, purchase products that aren’t tested on animals.

But you also enjoy eating meat, though you know some animals are kept in inhumane conditions before being used for meat. You feel guilty but can’t afford to buy meat from pasture-raised or grass-fed animals. And a meat-free diet isn’t realistic for you.

In the end, you decide to start buying cage-free eggs and plan to replace one of your meat purchases each shopping trip with humanely raised meat or a meat substitute, like tofu or tempeh. This reduces your guilt and helps you bridge the gap between your love of animals and your diet.

Cognitive dissonance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can prompt you to make positive changes when you realize your beliefs and actions are at odds.

It can become problematic if it leads you to justify or rationalize behaviors that could be harmful. Or you may get caught up in trying to rationalize the dissonance to the point of stressing yourself out.

The next time you find yourself in a moment of cognitive dissonance, take a moment to ask yourself a few questions:

  • What are the two cognitions that aren’t fitting together?
  • What actions would I need to take to eliminate that dissonance?
  • Do I need to change any specific behaviors? Or do I need to change a mindset or belief?
  • How important is it for me to resolve the dissonance?

Simply being more aware of how your thoughts and actions fit together can help you better understand what’s important to you, even if you don’t eliminate the dissonance.

Everyone experiences cognitive dissonance in some form in their life. It’s more common to feel discomfort and to feel like you need to resolve the dissonance when cognitions are important to you or they conflict heavily with each other.

Confronting cognitive dissonance can often lead to positive results. This doesn’t always involve making sweeping changes either. Sometimes, resolving cognitive dissonance is just a matter of changing your perspective on something or developing new patterns of thinking to help you live according to what’s most important to you.