In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the perception of contradictory information. It occurs when there is a discrepancy between one’s beliefs and one’s actions, producing a feeling of mental discomfort. This leads to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance. For example, when people avoid eating (behaviour) and they know this behaviour can cause harm (cognition), they are in a state of cognitive dissonance. 

Signs of cognitive dissonance

Signs of cognitive dissonance are not visible, as it is something a person feels internally. Meaning there is no set of physical signs or symptoms that can accurately indicate a person is experiencing cognitive dissonance. 

However, Leon Festinger, who first developed the concept in the 1950s, believed that people are motivated to avoid or resolve cognitive dissonance due to the discomfort it causes. This can be done through certain defence mechanisms, categorised as: 

  • Avoiding: This involves avoiding or ignoring the dissonance. They may avoid people or situations that remind them of it, discourage people from talking about it, or distract themselves from it.
  • Delegitimising: This involves claiming the evidence of the dissonance is untrustworthy or biassed. A person may do this by discrediting the person, group, or situation that highlighted the dissonance.
  • Limiting impact: This involves limiting the discomfort by belittling its importance. This can be done by claiming the behaviour is rare, or by providing rational arguments to convince themselves or others that the behaviour is okay.

What are the effects of cognitive dissonance?
Anyone can experience cognitive dissonance and it affects people in various ways. The internal discomfort of cognitive dissonance can lead to feelings of stress or unhappiness. People who have no way to resolve the dissonance may also feel powerless or guilty.

However, cognitive dissonance can also be used as a tool for personal and social change. A 2019 study finds that cognitive dissonance-based interventions may be helpful for people with eating disorders. This approach works by encouraging patients to role-play behaviours that contradict their beliefs about food and body image. 

Cognitive dissonance and eating disorders

The three most commonly diagnosed eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

Dissonance-based body image programmes have shown long-term effectiveness in preventing eating disorders and reducing risk factors for eating disorders in women. This approach of prevention states that the participants are encouraged to criticise the idea of appearance through a series of verbal, written, and behavioural exercises. These activities are thought to create cognitive dissonance, which reduces the depth to which the participant holds on to the idea of the ideal appearance. The overall goal of this is for participants to speak, act, and write in ways that are different from their own ideal appearance and ultimately lead to increased self-esteem.

We advocate for mindful and intuitive eating, and improving one’s relationship with food. For a body analysis or guided grocery shopping book a consultation with us at EBS Dieticians.