Facing the facts: The cognitive dissonance behind smoking
You won’t find a smoker that thinks smoking is a healthy habit. Still many people continue to smoke. What is going on here?
Cognitive Dissonance Theory, developed by Leon Festinger, states that people feel mental distress and discomfort called dissonance when they behave in a way that is contradicting to their beliefs. Smokers for example know that what they do is unhealthy but still continue to smoke. There are two options to decrease the unpleasant feeling of dissonance:
- Change your behavior and quit smoking.
- Change your beliefs about the behavior.
Cognitive Dissonance Theory dictates the path of least resistance will be chosen to decrease this feeling of dissonance. Because it is difficult to quit smoking, many smokers will choose to change their beliefs and not their behavior. Smokers decrease their beliefs about the health risks of smoking and increase beliefs about the positive effects of smoking.
Smoking habits have been a popular subject for describing cognitive dissonance. The idea that beliefs about smoking change over time when people quit smoking is another important aspect of Cognitive Dissonance Theory. If the theory is true, smokers will only change their beliefs after they have changed their behavior, because these beliefs are only formed to decrease the dissonance caused by their smoking.
Positive beliefs about smoking can be placed into two categories
- Functional beliefs: beliefs about why smoking helps someone, like increasing concentration.
- Risk-minimizing beliefs: beliefs that make the harmfulness of smoking less severe.
In a recent longitudinal study smokers’ beliefs were measured at three time points. Three groups existed at the end of the study: people that still smoked, people that had quit, and people that had tried to quit but had relapsed. What they found was that changes in behavior happened before changes in beliefs, which is consistent with Cognitive Dissonance Theory. When smokers quit and rationalizing with positive beliefs becomes unnecessary, these beliefs also change. Also, people that had never tried to quit rationalized their behavior most and people that had successfully quit rationalized smoking least. Relapsed smokers returned to the level of rationalization that they had before trying to quit. Functional beliefs changed most after quitting, which shows us that functional beliefs are created most by smokers to decrease dissonance.
In summary, changes in beliefs to rationalize smoking over time are consistent with Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Smokers and relapsed smokers have a high tendency to rationalize their smoking and people that successfully quit have less rationalizing beliefs about smoking in comparison to when they still smoked.
So facing the facts might not be the solution to make people quit smoking, first a behavioral change needs to be made and when this change has been successful previous smokers will be able to face the facts about smoking and stop rationalizing this nasty habit.
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