Cognitive Dissonance (and Lollipops)

Illustration by Avery Adamson

Cognitive dissonance is the stress of having two things in your mind that contradict one another.

The Five-Second Rule

Imagine you’re just about to eat a lollipop when it slips out of your hand and falls onto the very dirty floor.

Instinctively, you pick it up, say ‘five second rule,’ and then eat it.

This is an example of cognitive dissonance. You want the lollipop, but also know that dirty floors are gross (and probably unhealthy).

These two dissonant ideas of tasty and gross are in your mind at the same time, which may create some cognitive (brain) stress. Tasty wins out, but you may still worry about gross and unhealthy.

Why did you eat it? Because humans aren’t 100% rational.

People do what they want to do, not what they ‘should’ do. And their reasoning doesn’t always make complete sense.

Likewise businesses, run by humans, don’t always do things that make complete sense. Businesses can have cognitive dissonance too.

Both people and businesses are really good at coming up with rationalizations to reduce the stress of cognitive dissonance. Like the ‘five second rule’ – a completely untrue myth that if you pick up the candy before it’s been on the floor more than five seconds, it won’t have dirt on it.

This rationalization may make you feel better about doing something cognitively dissonant. It’s a mental stretch to help square the circle.

People live with cognitive dissonance all the time. And businesses, marketers and politicians are good at understanding and taking advantage of it.

As an individual, you can’t escape cognitive dissonance in yourself or others, but you can at least acknowledge it. While, of course, eating the lollipop.