Why do we do the things that we do?

Do you feel the need to justify your actions when they are odd or bizarre?

Why do people engage in activities or behaviours when they know that activity or behaviour to be harmful to themselves, wrong or even dangerous to others?

Have you heard of something called ‘Cognitive Dissonance’? It is usually defined as a negative state that we experience when we behave inconsistently from our beliefs or attitudes. What’s more, we will then try to reduce this inconsistency and resolve this negative state by changing our attitudes or behaviours.

Our own attitudes change in order to justify our actions.

Cigarette 1

For example, people who smoke know that nicotine addiction IS seriously harmful to health, yet they often justify their actions by changing their attitudes and beliefs about the risks – often quoting ‘Smoking isn’t as serious as people say it is’ or ‘I know someone who smoked 60 cigarettes a day, for 70 years, and died happily at 90’.

When there is no rational reward for doing what we do, money or coercion, we experience dissonance, which will then be reduced by irrational self-justification.

Magician's Hat

Let’s look at magic, something most people enjoy watching, but the effect (magicians call them effects rather than tricks) in itself produces dissonance in the audience. We believe that the ball was placed under that cup and when it is shown not to be in that location our minds will try to achieve consistency with our thoughts.

A)     People expect consistency

B)     Inconsistencies create dissonance

C)     Dissonance drives us to restore consistency

Most of us like to think of ourselves as decent, kind, moral people – unlikely to cause innocent people harm or distress. So when something happens, if our emotions are stimulated, let’s say anger, and we shout at someone, ignore or even hit another person, our own dissonance is then aroused.

If we cannot apologise, compensate or ‘take back’ this behaviour we will then try to resolve the dilemma and alleviate our dissonance by further derogating the victim. We will self-justify by pointing out how that person deserved our ill treatment because they were so bad.

But why?

Shout let it all out

Sometimes through dissonance, people’s attitudes can change to like and approve of what they have previously suffered from. Those who may have experienced corporal punishment (let’s say beatings or caning at school) can often claim that it did them good, not harm, and that others would benefit from it. Sometimes those who have experienced physical abuse as children have become immune to the negative aspect of this behaviour and they sometimes project this behaviour as a learned response or even to attract attention from the perpetrators.

Groups or societies often have painful or embarrassing initiation rites. Those who undergo these rites will later tend to value and support the experience. Dissonance can be resolved by elevating the status of the group that caused the initial pain or embarrassment – often called the ‘Severity of initiation’ test.

Using dissonance as a persuasion tool

Collection Business 5

Consistency is valued in society and salespeople are all too quick to use this to their advantage. Inconsistency can be viewed as hypocrisy or even dishonesty; this is why salespeople will often try to get you to commit to a position quickly, sometimes even unthinkingly, which you feel you should honour.

‘Would you buy if the price was right’? A seemingly non-specific request, however, an invitation to make a verbal commitment that is consistent with the behaviour that at a later stage will be requested by the salesperson. These commitments are most effective when done publicly, have taken some effort and appear to be voluntary.

People will then add justification to support the wisdom behind their early decision, in the pursuit of consistency. Thus dissonance can be a powerful weapon in a sales armoury, causing us to act in ways that are not often in our own best interest.

Post decision reasoning

Decisions which involve making difficult choices, sometime even life-changing choices, can often make people aware of their own cognitive dissonance – decisions such as buying a house, accepting a job. Quite often a well informed choice can be achieved by drawing up a list of pluses and minuses.

After a decision has been made, dissonance can be resolved by upgrading the status of the decision made and downgrading or derogating the decision which was turned down. It is referred to as ‘buyer’s nostalgia’.  Studies have shown that gamblers often feel more confident about winning once a decision has been made and they have placed their bet, then beforehand.

Dissonance in action

People as a whole will tend to avoid exposure to materials and information that opposes their own views. When a smoker for instance reads an article that gives evidence of specific harms and health hazards related to smoking, dissonance will be created in the mind of that smoker, the smoker will then have to justify, rationalise to themselves or do other mental work in order to resolve the dissonance. Hence, the material is avoided in the first place.

People will selectively expose themselves to information where possible. The smoker won’t pay attention to anti-smoking campaigns, the drinker pays little attention to alcoholic campaigns – they will seek out only that which they agree with.

Let me know your thoughts as to why people do the things they do, even in the light of knowing that what they’re doing is harmful to themselves, their own health or other peoples’.


Have a great day,

Richard Scott
clinical Hypnotherapist

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