Cognitive dissonance: Why you keep eating doughnuts

By Kentish and Co associate, Tom Robinson.

I’ve been exploring the role of cognitive dissonance at work. Started by Leon Festinger’s work, it flies in the face of the widely held belief that people are ‘true’ to their beliefs…

Cognitive dissonance theory states that people strive for internal consistence and psychological comfort. It says that people who are “psychologically uncomfortable” are able to actively change what they believe… if they are uncomfortable with two conflicting beliefs.

Consider an example:  You look in the mirror, thinking to yourself “I really must lose some weight”. A matter of only a few hours later, you find yourself tucking into a doughnut that someone’s passed round the office. In a moment of panic, you realise that you’ve committed to yourself that you’ll be good – and now you’re a bad person for eating the doughnut.

You’re psychologically uncomfortable, so what do you do? Your options are as follows:

  • Justify your behaviour: ‘It’s Sally’s birthday, it would be rude not to’
  • Ignore or deny the data: ‘It’s probably a low fat doughnut’
  • Add an extra clause to your contract with yourself: ‘I was really good yesterday and I walked to work, so it’s okay once in a while’
  • Change your behaviour: ‘Right, I’m throwing this doughnut in the bin’

Unfortunately, the last one is by far and away the most effective, but also the most difficult. It’s much easier to do any one of the first three and just change what you believe! Rationalising and justifying incongruent behaviours is incredibly common. And as human behaviour and organisational behaviour are intrinsically linked, the same things tend to happen in the world of business – to the detriment of us all!

There have been many high profile cases in the press recently of shocking corporate behaviour, but there are also hundreds of smaller, micro-dissonances that justify a range of behaviours at work. Consider ‘Steve’s a bit of a bully, but he really makes us an amazing profit!’ or ‘It’s OK that we make people work really long hours, because they wouldn’t make an effort otherwise’ or ‘We know we should have more senior women in leadership roles, but there’s no good women around’.

Justifying or rationalising uncomfortable behaviours, (rather than challenging them) can lead to a culture of sexism, bullying and low integrity; among many other dysfunctional outcomes.

So, do you want to rationalise, justify and explain away the reasons you reach for the doughnut, or do you want to take the tough choice and opt to change your behaviour instead?

And after reading Tom’s article…

If you only do one thing this month, answer these questions!…

…Click on question sheet A. Take a pen and answer each of the questions – simply mark yes or no on a sheet of paper. Go with your gut response, if you’re spending too much time, you’re probably not being honest with yourself!

Now click on question sheet B and do the same again – mark yes or no for each question.

Now compare your answers and hopefully this will help you to understand the article in practice and how it applies to your own individual answers.

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