When our beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes conflict within ourselves we are experiencing cognitive dissonance, according to a theory developed by Leon Festinger (1957).
Imagine you are trying to save money for a down payment on a house and you order a $50 steak or buy a $200 pair of jeans. That nagging or uneasy feeling that occurs is cognitive dissonance. Your behavior of splurging is not matching your attitude/belief that you should be saving money.
According to Festinger (1957) this internal conflict is resolved in one of three ways:
- Change your attitude/behavior/belief – “I am going to stop splurging.”
- Gain new information that outweighs the dissonance – “I just found out I am going to get a raise, therefore saving money is not as big of a concern.”
- Reduce importance of attitude/belief – “I don’t really need to save that much money.” or “I deserve this splurge, it’s okay.”
It is human nature to find consistency between opposing or competing beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors that we may hold. We will cognitively and behaviorally work to find internal resolution. Often a process we are not even aware we are doing, mentally adjusting our behavior or attitude, to maintain a sense of harmony.
“I deserve that steak, I’ve worked hard for it.”
This theory often comes to mind for me with my students. Especially for those that are struggling to feel confident as a learner, as a student in a classroom.
The reasons behind their lack of confidence are varied. They may have a learning disability, struggle with emotional or behavioral regulation, have experienced trauma, or simply do not feel confident in their abilities. Whatever the reason, they have an established belief that they are “not a good student” or “not good at school”.
To avoid the internal conflict that comes with cognitive dissonance students that hold this belief will behave accordingly. They may not complete their homework, not participate in class discussion, not demonstrate endurance on assignments or a test, in general they are perceived as not putting a great deal of effort into school.
Any glimmer of success or achievement may quickly be dismantled through self-sabotage. Their attitude towards learning at best may be reserved compliancy and at worst complete apathy. This can lead to a great deal of frustration for educators, and often the perspective is that the negative behavior and attitude is intentional.
It is intentional, but not for the reasons we might think. They are not avoiding work because they “don’t care”. They are not wasting time on the assignment because they have “no endurance”. They are not quiet during a classroom discussion because they are “not paying attention”.
Quite possibly… they could be doing all of these things to avoid the feeling of cognitive dissonance. Their behaviors and attitude as a student are matching their beliefs about how they see themselves as a student.
Maintaining this perspective provides an alternative approach for educators. Energy can be shifted from the negative behavior or attitude of the student, and focused instead on helping the student gain confidence in themselves as a learner. Increased confidence that will contribute to a change in beliefs about their own abilities as a student.
A change that will once again create cognitive dissonance until the student adjusts their behavior and attitude to match their new beliefs. They will begin to complete their homework, participate in class discussions, demonstrate endurance, and most importantly be perceived as a student working towards putting effort into school.
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.