Struggling With A Career Decision? Cognitive Dissonance May Be To Blame

By Heather Cherry—

You’ve been presented with two viable options for a new career. The first option is what you’ve always wanted—the role sounds like a perfect fit. But the second option comes with higher pay and better benefits. What will you do?

Feeling conflicted about the choices may result from cognitive dissonance—discomfort, tension, or anxiety resulting from holding two conflicting beliefs simultaneously.

Here’s what you can do.

Free-Choice Paradigm

Psychologists call the cognitive dissonance experienced in decision-making the free-choice paradigm. “When it comes to making decisions, usually we’re not presented with one perfect option, which means we have to weigh one imperfect option against another imperfect option (there are pluses and minuses to both), which creates dissonance,” said Dr. Michele Leno, founder and owner of DML Psychological Services PLLC and host of Mind Matters with Dr. Michele. “You experience internal conflict as your brain tries to balance those two (or more) choices.”

People experiencing cognitive dissonance may have:

  • embarrassment over feeling wrong about the beliefs they previously held;
  • shame or regret about past actions or decisions;
  • guilt for hiding or something they believe is bad; and
  • discomfort for doing something that contradicts what they believe.

Sometimes the cognitive dissonance may come up long after a decision has been made. “This can lead you to rationalize why you made a choice,” Dr. Leno said. “People rationalize their choices when confronted with difficult decisions by claiming they never wanted the option they did not choose.”

Cognitive Dissonance And Self-Sabotage

Psychologist Jack Brehm first investigated the relationship between dissonance and decision-making in 1956. Leon Festinger formulated it into a theory (1957), suggesting that when you force yourself to do something that doesn’t align with your core beliefs or values, you become unbalanced. Festinger’s theory identified that people need consistency between their behaviors, perceptions, attitudes, emotions, and ideas. And sometimes, achieving that balance doesn’t happen rationally.

This is because when cognitive dissonance occurs, the brain tends to react accordingly based on habits or behaviors. “When we have negative thoughts, our behaviors typically follow suit, and that’s when we can find ourselves acting against our best interests,” said Judy Ho, Ph.D., ADPP, a board-certified clinical and forensic neuropsychologist and Associate Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University.

“When clients are struggling with issues regarding their success or growth, it can point to their underlying core beliefs,” said Dr. Lindsay Barlow, a clinical psychologist at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. “Changing the relationship with the unproductive thought paves the path to letting it go eventually.”

And cognitive dissonance can be linked to self-sabotaging behaviors. “When we are confronted with new information that challenges any of our deeply held beliefs, our minds prefer to confirm what we already know, a phenomenon that psychologists call confirmation bias,” said Dr. Ho. “Sometimes, we don’t even notice the confirmation bias process because our brains have automated it. This can drive self-sabotage, especially when new information could cause us to take a closer look at our current behaviors and change the ones that aren’t working.”

Decision Making

When it comes to decision making, cognitive dissonance can be problematic if you start to justify or rationalize destructive behaviors. Or if you begin to stress yourself out by trying to explain the dissonance. “When cognitive dissonance goes unaddressed, it can not only cause angst, but it can lead to impaired decision-making,” said Dr. Grant Brenner, MD DFAPA, board-certified physician-psychiatrist, author, and speaker. “But when cognitive dissonance is properly addressed, it can lead to better decision-making and greater self-awareness.”

The best way to deal with cognitive dissonance in decision-making is to address it head-on. “Take responsibility for everything that you do,” Dr. Leno explains. “Be as real as possible with yourself.”

Reduce cognitive dissonance and self-sabotage by conducting a self-examination through mindfulness. Set the alarm for intermittent times of the day. When the alarm goes off, take a moment to consider what you were thinking. Next, jot your thoughts into a notebook so you can begin to uncover patterns. “Next time you feel a distressing or painful emotion during your decision making, assess what you thought just before you noticed the emotion. Thoughts precede emotions, and events don’t have a specific meaning until you attribute thoughts to them,” said Dr. Ho.

Work to identify the cause of inconsistencies in your thoughts. Consider these ideas.

  • Evaluate the pros and cons of your decision. What are you willing to give up?
  • How will giving that thing up impact (if anything) the situation? And will this impact have long-term consequences?
  • How does this decision directly contradict your belief system? Specifically, what beliefs does this decision infringe upon?
  • What is motivating you to consider your decision in the first place?

Digging into your cognitive dissonance can feel uncomfortable at first. But identifying it is a step toward understanding the reasoning behind your behavior, ultimately helping you make a more sound decision.

Heather Cherry is a versatile writer and editor with 15 years’ experience creating content. She writes on a variety of topics, but specializes in health and wellness content. She is the author of the small business marketing guidebook, Market Your A$$ Off.

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