Cognitive Dissonance

I recently committed a crime. I know that isn’t a promising confession from someone who wants you to read their blog about living a more ethical life, but hear me out.

It was a crime against reason and a crime against my values. It was also an actual ‘breaking the law’ crime. And I got caught.

Here’s what happened. I caught a train. I didn’t buy a ticket. This was noticed, and I paid for it in the form of some mild social shaming and a £20 fine. Sleep safe in your beds tonight, everyone. The system works.

Why am I telling you this in a blog about leading an ethical life? Is it to absolve myself of guilt via public confession? Not really.

The fact is, I didn’t feel that bad at all about what I’d done, and this illustrates an interesting wider barrier we all have to living more ethically; trying to avoid cognitive dissonance.



Cognitive dissonance is what happens when we try and hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time (like believing that it’s wrong to steal, but that it’s also okay to evade train fares). Cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, so we try to ignore or reason our way out of the contradiction.

When I got in trouble for what I’d done, I was more sullenly annoyed than anything else. Was I sorry? Not particularly. Sorry I got caught. It was the train company’s fault for charging such high prices that fare evading was worth the risk. I’m already paying a huge amount of my income just getting to and from work. Isn’t this enough?

Obviously, the above paragraph is not a very rational observation of the situation. I certainly couldn’t use these arguments to persuade anyone I was acting within my rights – but I was apparently able to persuade myself with relative ease, if my feelings on the matter were anything to go by.

The justifications I used to myself definitely benefited me. Merrily deluding myself in this manner meant I didn’t have to be disappointed in myself for breaking my own ethical code. I didn’t have the arduous task of re-evaluating my ethics (‘Is stealing always wrong? How can I tell?’) or my actions (‘stealing IS always wrong; I need to act differently from now on’).  I didn’t have to face the unpleasant ‘wrongness’ of holding two beliefs that were not at all compatible.

People combat cognitive dissonance in this way all the time. In fact, we might be hopelessly neurotic if we didn’t. Humans are not perfect (or even perfectly rational), and recognising all our contradictory beliefs and doing something about each of them would probably send most of us over the edge.

However, to live more ethical lives, we must regularly step back and reviews our values and behaviour. Are we holding contradictory views? Do we need to change our views or our actions?

There was recently public outcry concerning the Yulin dog festival, in which dogs were kept in poor conditions, killed inhumanely and eaten. Vegans and vegetarians have been quick to point out that we subject farm animals – such as pigs, which are just as intelligent as dogs – to exactly the same treatment. The implication is that anyone who reacted with revulsion to the festival cannot in good conscience eat products from the meat industry.

While perfectly correct to say this, many people will create excuses or go to great lengths to ignore this fact. Holding the beliefs ‘the meat industry is cruel and unacceptable’ and ‘it is okay for me to continue to eat meat’ are clearly incompatible and would cause considerable cognitive dissonance.

Most of the time, people will fight the mental nausea of cognitive dissonance for all they are worth before actually taking a hard look at their actions and changing them.

Another example can be illustrated with Peter Singer’s’drowning child’ analogy. Imagine  you’re walking in the park and you see a toddler drowning in a shallow pond. No one else is around. You are also wearing expensive new shoes. Is it okay to let the child drown to avoid ruining your shoes? The answer is obviously no; we feel we have a moral obligation to save the child’s life, and this far outweighs the cost of the shoes. So why don’t we feel obliged to save the lives of children in developing nations, which we could likewise achieve with very little cost to ourselves? A mosquito net or deworming tablet cost a few pence, and can mean the difference between life and death. Why do we not have a moral obligation to these children as we do to the drowning child? We can tell ourselves it’s because of distance, but this is just an arbitrary distinction. We can easily develop other excuses.

So what can we do about cognitive dissonance, apart from examining our own thoughts and actions more carefully and critically? We can recognise it as a defense mechanism in others. Instead of getting angry and calling someone a hypocrite (which will only make them more defensive), we can be patient with others, and encourage debate and discussion. People have to face up to cognitive dissonance in their own time, and that’s when they can start making positive changes in their lives. But you can push gently and consistently for them to challenge their own thinking, and challenge your own too.

The barriers were open today. I bought a ticket anyway.

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