January 16, 2008

Do we Really Know Better?

author_sallyBy Sally Raskoff

With the holidays and family gatherings over, it is a good time to ponder our behavior in these settings. During the holidays, do you indulge more in specific behaviors than you do in your everyday life? Most of us do.

Did you eat more food than usual? Did you eat more sugar or fat? Did you drink more than you usually do? Can’t remember what you did on New Year’s Eve? Do you have some tension or guilt about what you ate, drank, or did during the holidays?clip_image003

These over-indulgent behaviors can cause cognitive dissonance in the holiday season and at family gatherings. Cognitive dissonance is a social-psychological term that describes this “tension” that we experience when we think (or behave) in ways contrary to our “normal” modes. In other words, our thoughts (and behaviors) are in conflict with each other, and this creates ”dissonance” or tension that we find very uncomfortable. 

A great example of this phenomenon is a typical smoker’s attitude toward their habit: they know smoking is not healthy, yet they continue the behavior and may even value the act of smoking as much as they value their health. Social psychologist Leon Festinger clip_image006first coined this term after investigating a doomsday cult and their behaviors after their prophesied event didn’t take place. In resolving the conflict between their belief in the cult and the reality that the event had not occurred, some cult members gave up their belief while some rationalized the conflict by reinforcing their beliefs.

The more important something is to us or the more intense the conflict, the greater the cognitive dissonance. For example, when a strongly held belief is in conflict with our political thoughts or our behaviors, the dissonance can be quite strong. Compare a person who runs a red light with a Catholic who uses birth control, a pro-life person who chooses to end a pregnancy, and a lifelong political activist who votes for a candidate from the opposing party. How might their relative dissonance levels compare? The importance of one’s belief may affect dissonance.

Intensity also affects dissonance. For example, a person who abuses alcohol knows intellectually that drinking isn’t good for them but they may drink anyway. If that person gets liver disease because of the drinking, that increases the conflict, which increases the dissonance. The disease may not make it easier to quit; but it will make them more uncomfortable by increasing the tension between their knowledge and their behavior.

Resolving cognitive dissonance involves alleviating the conflicts by either ignoring one side of the issue or rationalizing ideas or behaviors. The act of rationalizing adds more support to one side of the conflict, thus minimizing or overpowering the other side. 

Many of us know that we will violate our typical eating and drinking patterns during the holidays. That causes some dismay but we figure we’ll slow down after the holidays and go back to our regular pattern, possibly fasting or cutting back for awhile to compensate. The act of rationalizing that behavior acts to reduce the cognitive dissonance we are feeling. But do we really end up fast or cut back our calories to compensate for the over-consumption?

clip_image009 I know that over the holidays this year, I’ve been eating more sugary foods (chocolate) than I typically do during the rest of the year. Why do I do this when it makes my body feel unwell? Because they taste good! Because relatives or friends made them or at least bought them. Because my favorite treats are rarely in the house during the rest of the year so why not eat while we have ‘em? Because this is what we do at our house—eat the foods and drink the beverages that people bring over. Are any of these good and rational reasons to eat all this sugar? Not really—but these rationalizations do enable me to pick up another cookie and not feel so guilty about it.

Alternatively, I could give myself more important reasons not to eat these items. For example, I could think about how I don’t feel well when I eat a lot of sugar. That should be rather important to me since I’d rather feel healthy than unhealthy. However, that rationale rarely overwhelms the others presented above because it is more abstract, not as immediate, and not as strong a connection. After all, I may feel bad for some other reason thus I’d miss out on these treats. (See how that rationalization process keeps working?)

I have some relatives who were expected the morning of New Year’s Day. They showed up at three in the afternoon because they had clip_image012gone out on New Year’s Eve and “partied” a bit longer than they had planned. Their cognitive dissonance rested with their decision to stay up and out most of the night and that was in conflict with their plan to come over in the morning. When they finally showed up in the afternoon, they mentioned that they had hangovers and were “so tired” so we shouldn’t chide them about being so late. Their attempt to relieve their dissonance involved focusing on how bad they were feeling so that they could feel less guilty about being late. If we knew they felt terrible because of their own choices, we would give them less grief about it, and their dissonance would dissipate. (We still teased them about it.)

Holiday behaviors are similar to those behaviors we may choose in young adulthood. In many American cultures, it is appropriate for people in their twenties (“college age”) to experiment and try new as they develop their independence and maturity. That experimentation can generate plenty of cognitive dissonance since the things we try may be in conflict with the values we were taught.

Cognitive dissonance can happen anytime, but it is more likely to occur during the holidays and at certain points in the life cycle (mid-life crisis, anyone?). What other examples come to your mind? How might they be resolved?


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Actually, "abstinence makes the heart a goner".
Recent 20-year Danish study cites the benefits of moderate drinking + exercise.


Actually, "abstinence makes the heart a goner".
Recent 20-year Danish study cites the benefits of moderate drinking + exercise.


Any advice on issues involving the friendships of women and the role jealousy and dominating behavior plays in those friendships? I have been realizing that many of my friends have attempted to control me and nicely push me around. These individuals are nice people but may be a bit troubled (not totally content with their lives from my vantage point) and I am curious to find out any sociological input before I officially fire them. I am a pretty laid back friend who is successful and attractive and several of these women seem to be out to bleed me dry. Any input??? I feel like "why me??"

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