According to social psychologist Leon Festinger, human beings are motivated by something he calls cognitive dissonance, which is essentially a fancy name for disharmony among or within our thought processes, beliefs, and/or opinions (A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance 3). Human beings thus have a drive to produce consistencies, reduce inconsistencies, and avoid situations that might produce inconsistencies. Cognitive dissonance comes from receiving new information, which can also be manifest in new events (4-5).
Cognitive dissonance is implicit whenever we have a decision to make, when we choose between two or more options. These options are dissonant–they’re not in harmony–because they cannot be done at the same time and in the same moment.
Let’s look at a trivial but revealing example. Let’s say I am sitting at my desk, busily working on a project. I am focusing on my work when all of a sudden I have a problem–I receive some new information: my stomach growls, I start salivating, and I think about the Snickers bar that’s in the vending machine down the hall. At this new information, I have cognitive dissonance, an inconsistency, and one my nature drives me to resolve. I am hungry and I want to eat, but I also want to continue to do what I’m doing because if I get up to go get that Snickers bar, I will lose much (or all) of my concentration. (I also already know that Snickers bars aren’t very good for my health, which means that eating one is going to create another kind of dissonance.) But I have to make a choice. I cannot make both choices at the same time, and both choices have some consequences that I do not want–no Snickers on the one hand, a loss of focus on the other. The choices are dissonant because each choice will take me in a slightly different direction than the other. But when I do make a decision, and since both options have undesirable consequences, I must justify the resulting dissonance from that choice. If I choose to eat the Snickers bar, I’ll argue to myself that once in a while is okay (studies have said that chocolate is good for your health!), I needed a break anyway and will be able to focus better after I get a snack, and, besides, it just tastes so good that it’ll be worth it. On the other hand, if I choose to stay at my desk, my justification would be that I don’t need all those calories or all that fat and sugar (I’ll just have to exercise them off!), I’m getting so much done that I cannot risk losing my focus right now, and, besides, I find pride in not stooping so low to give in to my cravings–mind over matter, right?
In my own mind, the problem has been resolved. For now.