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Working with ‘cognitive dissonance’ as a therapist

Working with ‘cognitive dissonance’ as a therapist

Our thoughts, attitudes, ideas, beliefs and behaviours can either be complementary and working well with each other, or can clash and be in conflict (cognitive dissonance), which can cause us discomfort and lead to us having to make potentially unhelpful ‘adjustments’ to reduce that discomfort. These thoughts, attitudes, ideas and beliefs (‘cognitions’) and our behaviours and actions, can either be termed ‘consonant’ (where they work well together), ‘dissonant’ (where they clash), or ‘irrelevant’ (where there is no obvious relationship). As therapists, whether hypnotherapists, psychotherapists, psychologists, counsellors and other talking therapists, we work with clients (and on ourselves too) to help change these aspects of their lives, and this is where understanding of internal conflict and the impact and influence it can have, is really useful.

Where cognitions are consistent with each other, such as “I like eating salads” and “vegetables are healthy” these can be referred to as ‘consonant’. Whilst those cognitions that are inconsistent, such as “I like cream cakes every day” and “I want to eat healthily” can be called ‘dissonant’. Finally, where cognitions are not connected, such as “I want to eat healthily” and “I like new tyres on my car in winter”, they are referred to as ‘irrelevant’.

‘Cognitive dissonance’ is the term for holding conflicting behaviours, thoughts, ideas, values, beliefs or attitudes. The resultant discomfort generates a change in one of the behaviours, beliefs or attitudes, in order to alleviate discomfort and restore balance. As individuals, we develop many thoughts and beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. These cognitions can become conflicting and this clash causes sufficient unpleasant tension so as to motivate us to change things (to reduce or eliminate), and to create balance.

balance cognitive distortions hypnotherapy hypnosis hypnotc therapist

Cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger) suggests we all strive to keep harmony amongst our beliefs and attitudes, and introduces the ‘Principle of Cognitive Consistency’. However, the strong drive to maintain cognitive consistency can result in irrational and unhelpful (‘maladaptive’) behaviour. As individuals we adopt a range of strategies to reduce cognitive dissonance and to increase harmony and balance. There are three common approaches to reduce the importance of the cognitions.

Firstly, by reducing the importance of the beliefs and attitudes (cognitions), this may diminish the importance of the dissonant cognition. For example: ‘James’ smokes 30 cigarettes a day and drinks a bottle of wine each evening. He rationalises it by considering he is ‘living for today’ rather than living a long yet dull joyless life. This way he reduces the corresponding dissonant cognition that ‘smoking is bad for his health’.

Secondly, another strategy employed by clients to reduce cognitive dissonance is to obtain new data, of sufficient quality / quantity for the information to outweigh the dissonant cognition. ‘James’ might consider that his smoking may cause lung cancer. He then reads an article in the newspaper that questions whether research has definitively proven smoking to cause lung cancer. He latches on to that information as he perceives it to be ‘stronger information’ than his previous belief, and it is more consonant (fits in better) with his ‘living for today’ cognition.

A third strategy that some clients use to reduce cognitive dissonance is to change one or more of their existing beliefs, attitudes or behaviours in order to make the balance between two beliefs consonant instead of dissonant. ‘James’ may find this approach more challenging, as it may be difficult to change a highly established behavioural response (e.g. smoking) or a strongly held attitude / belief (e.g. ‘living for today’).

For therapists, when working with clients to change their cognitions, such as a client’s poor attitude towards exercise, you can create dissonant thoughts about that attitude, which can potentially cause the dissonance itself to generate change in that attitude. This works well with approaches such as REBT, parts therapy and work with the subconscious mind using ideo-motor therapies.

challenge belief cognitive dissonance hypnotherapy hypnosis hypnotc therapist

Cognitive dissonance can also influence decision making. Clients are generally bombarded with choices throughout their day. The dissonance caused by rejecting the possible benefits of the route not chosen can cause regret. Curiously perhaps, the closer the choices are in their advantages and attractiveness, the more dissonance tends to be generated. Furthermore, the more significant or perceived importance of the decision, such as choosing between two houses to buy, the greater the potential dissonance, when compared to choosing between two insignificant options, such as whether to have a sandwich or salad for lunch.

Four strategies can be employed to address the dissonance that results from the decision-making process:

Reduce the importance of the decision

Decrease the perceived attractiveness of the rejected option

Increase the attractiveness of the selected option

Revoke the decision entirely

…a common strategy is to both reduce the attractiveness of the rejected option and increase the attractiveness of the selected option, thus creating a far greater distance between the two options.

Some clients may be so acutely uncomfortable with the feelings of cognitive dissonance, they end up avoiding any situations, events and experiences that may cause it. For a small percentage of clients, this can become socially or life-limiting. Clients are generally more likely to seek information that is consistent with their cognitions, attitudes and beliefs whilst actively avoiding information that is inconsistent. However, curiosity can be a strong motivator for clients to seek information that conflicts with their current beliefs and attitudes, particularly where such information would be thought of as useful. From a therapy perspective, having a therapy pre-talk (such as an introduction to and explanation of hypnotherapy) that is a two-way communication, rather than a lecture or rehearsed speech, can help avoid generating dissonance and better meet the needs of each individual client, as the intuitive therapist will inform the client with a truthful combination of what they want to hear alongside what they need to understand about the therapy process.

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Engaging in behaviour and actions that are inconsistent with their beliefs and attitudes can also cause a client to experience dissonance. For example, if they have done a favour for a neighbour by giving them a lift to the supermarket because they have injured their ankle; yet they really don’t like their neighbour. Awareness of the potential for this is important for a therapist, particularly when negotiating homework, as the client may go ‘off track’ to reduce any dissonance caused by engaging in the dissonant homework activities.

With some clients, there may also be a correlation between cognitive dissonance and effort. Those goals and items that have required the most effort tend to be most desired or valued, and become associated with ‘effort justification’. Thus, if we put a great deal of effort into something and it later turns out to be less desirable, it may cause dissonance. Yet, we can then help the client to decide that the desired outcome was different, or that there were other influencing factors that changed the outcome. This reduces that dissonance. Thus, helping clients keep appropriate yet flexible goals can be more beneficial to the therapy process than rigid goals and expectations.

At the end of the day, some clients will be more capable and comfortable tolerating cognitive dissonance, and some clients may find it more uncomfortable. Where there is ‘forced compliance’ with an attempt to persuade or compel an individual to do something inconsistent with their attitudes, this can result in greater dissonance. There is dissonance between the ‘don’t want to do it’ and ‘did it’. Thus, some clients will be happy to engage in a change process that takes them beyond their comfort zones, whereas other clients are reluctant to do this. Working with the individual needs of your client can reduce cognitive dissonance and enhance therapy outcomes.


References & Further Reading

Festinger, L. (1957) A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Festinger, L. (1964) Conflict, decision, and dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J.M. (1959) Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210.


We hope this blog on cognitive dissonance has been helpful, and if you have any questions relating to this blog, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!

– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks
(HypnoTC Director)

Dr Kate Beaven-Marks HypnoTC the Hypnotherapy Training Company

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