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How to detect cognitive dissonance in yourself and others

30 October 2018

Never heard of cognitive dissonance? You’ll almost certainly have experienced it with your own behaviour or someone else’s - it’s a very common human trait.


In fact, it’s fair to argue that cognitive dissonance is the very essence of being human. We’re generally happier when things are consistent, and when beliefs that are held dear are challenged or the truth doesn’t appear to agree with what we think is true, the reaction is fascinating.


This is cognitive dissonance in action, and rather than heading down the mind-bending route of scientific theory and research, it’s probably best described as ‘explaining something away’. We’ve all done that, right?


An example of cognitive dissonance in training
Let’s put this into context.


You’re training a team on manual handling and the day is going swimmingly, until you reach the point where you demonstrate how to correctly lift a box from the floor.


One of the learners doesn’t agree with your approach. In fact, as far as they’re concerned, it’s completely wrong and goes against everything they’ve been taught previously. This is odd, because the method you’re using is the dictionary definition of how to lift objects; it’s been that way for years and is highly regarded as the right way to do it.


Despite this, the learner continues to disagree, demonstrates what they believe to be the correct method and spends the rest of the day feeling somewhat miffed.


This is a classic example of cognitive dissonance. The learner has long thought their method was correct; they’ve used it for years, yet today, that belief system has been disrupted - consistency has evaporated and harmony broken. This results in stress on their part, or what might otherwise be referred to as ‘dissonance’.

Signs of cognitive dissonance

As a trainer, it’s important to keep an eye out for the signs of cognitive dissonance so you can address them by either opening up a line of conversation with the learner or reminding yourself that your beliefs may not always align with reality.


Here’s some of the most common signs of cognitive dissonance:

1) Feeling uncomfortable or squeamish

A sure sign of cognitive dissonance is squeamishness or someone who is clearly uncomfortable in their seat during training.


Think of it like the time you wanted to upgrade your phone but knew, deep down, you didn’t really need to - the current model was perfectly fine for you. You squirmed, felt rather uncomfortable and toiled with the thought of spending money on something you didn’t need (and probably made the wrong decision).

2) Avoidance

Cognitive dissonance will often prevent learners from getting involved.


Imagine someone in the classroom who has an answer to a question you’ve posed. They think it’s right, but two other people dive in immediately with opposing answers. Thus, they give in; clearly they’re wrong.


You know what? Their answer was actually the right one, but it’ll never be heard. It’s a harder trait to spot, but usually results in someone who looks like they want to say something but, for whatever reason, doesn’t feel they can.

3) Disregarding the facts

Training usually involves quoting facts, figures and research. It’s an enjoyable part of being a trainer when you can turn to something that backs up the training material and puts it in real-world context.


Only, those who experience cognitive dissonance at times like this will completely ignore any facts presented to them. No matter how strong the evidence might be, their belief is true. End of story.


This can be frustrating for everyone else in the room (why can’t they see the truth?!), but cognitive dissonance of this kind is something most of us will exhibit at some stage in our lives.

Wrapping up

Cognitive dissonance isn’t something to be feared, avoided or criticised. As noted at the start of this blog post, it’s a natural human trait.


As a trainer, the key lies in identifying it, and addressing the results of cognitive dissonance empathetically. After a while, most of us come around and can see through the forest of our own belief systems!

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