Cognitive dissonance: how much is too much?

by Grace Garland | Published on 27 May 2019 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

If you have ever promised yourself the night before that you’ll go for a run in the morning, and then you don’t, you have experienced ‘cognitive dissonance’. It is that uneasy feeling when your beliefs and your actions are not in sync. So, you really want to go for a run and you have aspirations of maintaining an active lifestyle but, now that it comes to it, the bed is warm, you’re tired, and the extra rest will do you good. The twinge of guilt is easily rationalised away, you roll over, and never quite become the runner you want to be. The pattern looks something like this: (1) form a belief about something important, (2) fail to find it or bring it about in actuality, (3) suffer some mental discomfort. It can happen in just about any context, and to varying degrees of severity. The environmentalist who eats meat knows the feeling. The smoker desperate to quit knows the feeling. The ethics professional who submits an inflated expense claim knows the feeling.

Piano "The ‘notes’ one plays at home should be in harmony with the ‘notes’ one plays in the workplace. And if the workplace is calling on its employees to play clangers that are hard on the ear, something is not right with the workplace."

The word ‘dissonance’ draws its meaning from the realm of music. Dissonance, discord or disharmony describe musical notes whose frequencies clash, and so they are not often played together, except to intentionally cause tension or discomfort in listeners. The opposite concept, ‘consonance’, describes the pleasant sound of notes whose frequencies are in harmony, creating a concordant or ‘consonant’ sound when played together. Brilliant music is the result of dissonance and consonance being in perfect ratio, with just a hint of the former to create enough discomfort which the latter, the harmony, then releases. I’d suggest that we need dissonance in music, to truly appreciate a good tune.

The questions is, what role does cognitive dissonance – the uneasy feeling when one’s beliefs are not consistent with one’s actions – play in everyday life? More importantly, I want to suggest that it is easy to become accustomed to a high degree of cognitive dissonance, without being aware of the anxiety this causes. There are hundreds of psychological studies into cognitive dissonance, which I won’t go into, but the broad consensus is that human beings fare better when they experience internal consistency or harmony. We like for our values and our actions to be aligned. Of course, this isn’t always possible, and we have developed a swathe of mental and emotional mechanisms for coping with inconsistency. We rationalise, justify, or re-describe the situation to ourselves, so it doesn’t feel so dissonant anymore: “It’s a Saturday! Saturdays are for resting.” This is a fairly tame example (told with vivid first-person experience) but it can get a lot worse.

In our workplaces, we are likely to encounter cognitive dissonance quite often. These could be low-intensity moments of discomfort in our day-to-day duties, or something bigger, such as working for an organisation or an industry that is at odds with our personal views. (To take an extreme example: a vegan could hardly work at an abattoir). I suppose one of the overarching goals of organisational ethics is to build consensus around shared values, and then to develop the operational systems of governance and management that bring them into actuality. By having a shared understanding of what is acceptable – through, for example, a code of ethics – it is supposed to be easier for everyone to narrow the gap between what we stand for and what we actually do. But there is still the individual level to consider (something we possibly don’t do enough of when we refer to organisations as if they are persons) and our differing levels of tolerance for cognitive dissonance. No code of ethics will fully assuage the emotional and mental tension of doing a job that one objects to or thinks is not important.

I suspect that part of the reason why many of us have a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance is because we aren’t so convinced by our own convictions. We hold them in the circumstances where they are holdable but, where considerations of salary or personal comfort or family are concerned, they are waivable. That’s why I admire whistle-blowers who, very often, find it impossible to continue behaving in a way that jars with their beliefs, and are prepared to sacrifice a great deal in doing something about it. If we could design society all over, I would not wish for more whistle-blowers, though. I would wish for a socioeconomic system that doesn’t need whistle-blowers, one in which individuals do not have to sacrifice values every day just to get by. We would live in a far more harmonious kind of community if we weren’t constantly experiencing a mild form of split-personality. I have lived through days where I teach philosophy students about the inherent dignity of human beings and, on the drive home, avoid the homeless person’s eye at the traffic light. The inconsistency of it! I try to reduce the likelihood such moments of dissonance occuring, but much of it is beyond my power. As I said, we would have to redesign society to bring the ratio of consonance and dissonance in check. As South Africans, we can despise inequality all we like, but that is the sort of society we perpetuate when we continue to live (and vote) as we do.

Is cognitive dissonance corruption? Not necessarily. Individuals who execute corrupt acts may endorse the acts themselves, and so experience no discord. And it may also be that the discomfort is only ever internally experienced, and no one else is harmed in the process. But cognitive dissonance is surely at play for employees of organisations that are involved in corrupt activities, who know about it, but who do not speak up or leave. In a strange way, employees’ tolerance of cognitive dissonance is a potential risk to their organisation’s sustainability. We need our colleagues to act when things are out of joint for them, not to disengage and stay silent. Say someone witnesses corruption; the last thing an ethical business leader will want is for that person to rationalise the act as justified, or “not so bad”, or “none of my business”. Is it going too far to say that that person is, in some tiny way, complicit? In teaching ethics, it is popular to advise that one should avoid doing anything one wouldn’t feel comfortable telling one’s children all about. It’s a simple idea, but powerful for demonstrating the importance of consistency. The ‘notes’ one plays at home should be in harmony with the ‘notes’ one plays in the workplace. And if the workplace is calling on its employees to play clangers that are hard on the ear, something is not right with the workplace. (And if the workplace is simply responding to the basic conditions in society, then something is not right with the society).

I am a fairly positive person so, to achieve consonance, I’ll end on a note of encouragement. The world over, calls are being made by powerful figures and bodies to ‘humanise’ our economic systems, to bring ethics and values back into business and government. Ultimately, individual decision-making matters at the individual level – consonant decision-making lowers stress – but it also matters in the aggregate. The more people there are who value fairness, honesty, equality, and who do things to make them real, the better chance we have of building an ethical society.

grace Circle 6


Grace Garland is an Associate of The Ethics Institute, responsible for communications and editorial projects. She holds a Master of Business Administration from University of Stellenbosch Business School, and is currently studying towards a Master of Applied Ethics at University of the Witwatersrand.