Quit Cog-Dissin’ Your Plan!

Marie is a dietician. She believes in eating organic, wholesome food—but, she finds herself eating fast food twice a week to save time and money.

Jenny joined a gym two months ago. She knows how important physical activity is to her health and daily functioning. Since she became a member, the only form of exercise she has participated in is the walk from her TV to the refrigerator. She says she is too tired after work and doesn’t enjoy the gym atmosphere.

Terry realizes that she needs more time to herself and less time at work—but, whenever her boss asks her to take on another project or work a double-shift, she complies. She says she needs the money, enjoys her job, and expects to receive a promotion very soon.

Marie, Jenny, and Terry are all guilty of cog dissin’ their health plans. Cog dissin’ is a slang term for Leon Festinger’s theory of Cognitive Dissonance, a topic that social psychologists use to study attitude change and formation, decision making, and problem solving.

Human inconsistency is very common. Everyone has experienced a time when they know they are behaving in ways that contradict with their values. Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two simultaneous beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors that contradict one another. For example, Marie’s beliefs about nutrition contradict her weekly eating behaviors. And Jenny’s beliefs about physical activity contradict her behaviors and attitudes towards the gym. This inconsistency creates uncomfortable feelings—such as guilt, anger, frustration, and embarrassment—and we are motivationally driven to maintain or regain consistency in the easiest way possible.  This often takes the form of changing one’s attitudes and beliefs to match their behavior, as seen with Terry. Logically, Terry should say no to her boss’s requests, but breaking old habits and acquiring new ones is very difficult.

When it comes to your own personal health plan, it is important to identify moments when dissonance occurs so you can mentally prepare yourself to begin substituting one option for another. For example, whenever I go out to eat, I feel dissonance between my diet goals and having a social, delicious meal. To help you identify your cog dissin’ patterns, Festinger identified three situations when dissonance is most likely to occur.

The first is called post-decisional dissonance or “morning after doubts” which occurs when we have to make a decision between two or more options. Whether it is cereal brands, diet plans, or physical activity regimens, we find it a struggle to decide between options A and B, and we feel some level of uneasiness after the decision is made. Cog dissin’ is especially strong when two options are equally attractive or important; the decision takes a long time to make; and/or it is very difficult to reverse the decision after it is made.

The second situation is called effort justification. This arises when a person engages in an unpleasant activity in order to obtain some desirable outcome. Terry’s work situation closely follows this example. She engages in an unpleasant, stressful work schedule and justifies it with her desired monetary outcomes. She resolves her dissonance by placing a monetary reward for her difficult efforts.

The third situation is called insufficient justification, which occurs after doing an overt behavior that contradicts or conflicts with personal beliefs by offering a reward that is sufficient enough to elicit the overt behavior. This is seen on many of the reality TV shows, especially shows like Fear Factor and Survivor. The TV shows harness the concept of cognitive dissonance by offering a reward, in money or fame, that is enough to make participants eat disgusting foods or complete dangerous stunts.

These three classifications of cognitive dissonance will help you brainstorm different times when you find yourself cog dissin’ your plan. You may find many similarities between your cog dissin’ experiences and the examples described. Here is a list of strategies to combat negative cog dissin’ to maintain consistency and balance in your own life:

  • Keep a health journal. Define your health attitudes and beliefs very clearly, with as much detail as possible.
  • Monitor your behavior. Observe when your behavior is inconsistent with your health beliefs.
  • Realize the vulnerability of your attitudes and cognitions. Changing your attitude is much easier than changing your behavior, but DO NOT TAKE THE EASY WAY OUT.
  • Once you have made a decision, stick to it. Indecisiveness, “what ifs,” and “shoulda, coulda, woulda’s” can unhinge even the most balanced people.

At times, attitude change is a good thing. But, make sure to ask yourself, “Will my attitude change/decision promote positive consistency in my life?” The key word is positive. Often, we change our attitudes to support a negative behavior that resolves our feelings of dissonance, but leads us down the wrong path.

When you stop cog dissin’ your plan, and start following it, you will find the great satisfaction of consistency and balance in your life.

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