Using Cognitive Dissonance to Shape Your Behavior

How we can take advantage of the unpatched exploit hidden in our minds.

July 28, 20193 min read

Cognitive dissonance theory states that when two thoughts are in disagreement, or dissonance, then we must reduce the gap between them. For instance, when we believe we are a bodybuilder, yet we do not go to the gym, we must either alter our belief that we’re a bodybuilder, begin going to the gym, or perform mental gymnastics to somehow hold both thoughts in our head simultaneously. An example of mental gymnastics to reduce the dissonance would be to tell yourself "I'm a bodybuilder, but I can't go to the gym because my wrist is injured". If we're naturally inclined to reduce the dissonance between two conflicting thoughts, then we can theoretically shape our behavior by simply believing a false statement.

Humans have a need to reduce the gap between our beliefs and our actions. If we believe something to be true about ourselves, then our actions will subconsciously change to fit our belief, therefore reducing the dissonance. There is a two-way causality between beliefs and actions.

If I was a shy individual who wanted to be more sociable and friendly, all I would have to do would be to truly believe that I was an extrovert and enjoyed other people's company. The dissonance here would be between these two thoughts:

  1. I am an extrovert and enjoy other people's company. (belief)
  2. I rarely speak to strangers and shy away from conversations. (behavior)

Cognitive dissonance theory states that when two thoughts are in disagreement, we must reduce the gap between them. So, this mean's we'll either change our mind about being an extrovert, or we'll naturally begin to alter our behavior and talk to more people. If I maintain the belief that I am extrovert, then I will subconsciously become more extroverted. The challenging part here is that we reduce our dissonance by taking the path of least resistance. This means if it's easier for us to change our belief, then we won't change our behavior. However, if we somehow make it difficult to change our belief, then the only possible course of action to reduce the dissonance would be for our behavior to change.

The fascinating thing about exploiting cognitive dissonance to engineer your behavior is that the behavioral changes are subconscious. If I truly believe I'm a bodybuilder, I don't have to conjure up the motivation or willpower to walk to the gym every day. It literally just happens. Of course, the most difficult part of this is changing our belief. How can we believe something false about ourselves?

Believing something false about ourselves seems impossible, and this whole theory builds its foundation on our ability to believe a false statement. How can I believe something I know to be incorrect? Well, fortunately (or unfortunately), our brains are not the rational logic machines we once thought they were. My favorite example of this is that the Placebo effect still works even when the subject knows they're being given a placebo. We're susceptible to many different cognitive biases, so believing a false thought is very much possible. I'd recommend reading Thinking Fast and Slow if you're interested in learning more about how we think.

A Frontend Programming Analogy

If you wrote a web application in the past year, you've probably used React. React effectively works by defining your app's UI as a function of its state. Rather than having to manually handle every possible branch of your applications's UI tree, you simply define UI as a function of state. Meaning for any given UI, you simply modify the state, and React handles updating the UI for you.

Cognitive dissonance gives us React programming for our behaviors. Rather than manually trying to change our frontend (our behaviors), we simply alter our state (our beliefs), and our behavior will automatically follow suite.

Notes on Cognitive Dissonance

Another example of cognitive dissonance: Catholics attend Mass every Sunday. I have Catholic friends who don't attend Mass every Sunday. How is it possible to believe these two thoughts simultaneously?

  1. They change their beliefs. (I was raised Catholic, but now I'm agnostic.)
  2. They change their behavior. (Valid point, I'll start going to Church.)
  3. They perform mental gymnastics. (I want to go to Mass, it's just that I'm so busy on Sundays.)

This means Catholic guilt is just cognitive dissonance, or the uncomfortable feeling of holding two conflicting beliefs.