As humans, we like to believe that the choices we make are rational and well founded, but by using psychology to look into the subconscious we can see that not all our decisions are totally logical. How do internal conflicts cause us to make these irrational choices?

In a 1959 psychology study, Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith asked students to engage in what they claimed to be a very fun and exciting experiment. However, the eager students then had to turn pegs on a pegboard — an extremely dull task — for an hour! Every student commented on how boring the task was, and then was paid either $1 or $20 to lie to the next waiting participant, saying that the experiment was actually really interesting. When the students were later asked to evaluate the experiment, many of those who were paid only $1 to lie had convinced themselves that the task was fun, while those who were paid $20 had not.

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling of tension that results from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time.

The psychological concept of cognitive dissonance explains how these students persuaded themselves to like the tedious experiment they had considered boring half an hour ago. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling of tension that results from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time. People are psychologically driven to reduce dissonance by changing their actions or beliefs.

In this study, those who were paid $1 experienced cognitive dissonance because being paid only $1 did not provide sufficient incentive for lying. To reduce this dissonance, these participants convinced themselves that the tasks were more fun than they actually were. On the other hand, $20 was adequate incentive for lying that turning the pegs was fun. The participants who received $20 did not experience any dissonance and so did not change their attitude towards the experiment.

While most of us will never be forced to lie that turning pegs for an hour is fun, we all experience cognitive dissonance in our daily lives.

One common example of cognitive dissonance occurs in purchasing decisions. Most people want to believe that the choice they made was the best possible decision. Therefore, right after making a difficult choice, such as buying a certain cell phone or car, people usually engage in a spreading of alternatives, in which they alter their beliefs to highlight all the bad aspects of any other items they were considering buying while focusing on all the good aspects of the purchased product to help convince themselves that they made the best choice.


Seeing only the flaws in another company's product.

Sof Andrade Flickr

Cognitive dissonance even has direct applications to life at Princeton. People tend to like things that they put a lot of effort into, especially clubs or groups that have rigorous entry requirements. If students go through an extensive bickering process to join an eating club, only to later realize the eating club is not as great as they expected, they may try to reduce dissonance by justifying their efforts, convincing themselves that they like the club more than they actually do.

Cognitive dissonance is always looming in the human subconscious. As psychiatrist Frantz Fanon said, “People will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with [their] core belief.”

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