In general, people are very “happy go lucky”. They have their beliefs and values and everything in their life pretty much falls into place based on the systems they were brought up with, or have set for themselves. Cognitive dissonance comes into play when you have two beliefs or values that come up at once and contradict each other. People don’t know how to react so they are forced to alter their beliefs to accommodate the contradiction. For example, Michael likes to save money for his retirement and therefore never spends more than the absolute minimum on anything he buys. Then one day his computer breaks and he goes to the store to buy a new one but ends up buying the most expensive computer in the store with the most features, memory and storage. He then convinces himself that it was a “good buy” because it will last longer and after all, it’s a business expense. What Michael actually did was slightly modified his values so that he can be comfortable with his new purchase. Conflicts of these sorts are in most cases resolved by a change in values or beliefs that will do the least damage to the person’s ego.
Did you ever get an email from a millionaire in Nigeria who needs help getting his money out of the country? All he needs is your bank account and he will give you a cut of the money. It is common knowledge that giving away your bank information to a stranger is a bad idea. At the same time, just think of what you could do with 10 million dollars, especially since you just lost your job. The reason that this sort of scam is so popular is because it works. People are blinded by the thought of making so much money that they are willing to risk it. It’s sad that most people who lose money to these scams don’t report it to the police or anyone else because they are embarrassed. They knew that giving away their information was a bad idea and can’t believe they did it anyway.
Salesmen often use cognitive dissonance to make a sale. When I was looking to buy my first car, I was brought in to the dealership by an advertisement I saw for the car that I wanted at an incredible price. When I got to the dealership, they told me that it must have been a mistake because the price is much higher but they will show me the lot and help me pick out a similar car at my price point. Once I was already there, I figured I may as well look around.
As I looked around, I started to get excited and as the salesman saw it, he began a few other little tricks up his sleeve. He lowered the price on the cars that I wanted, he spoke to his manager so that he can give me an even better deal, he even told me he liked me so much that he would give up his commission to give me a better rate. As we were talking, he asked for my licence so that he could start the paperwork “just in case”. I should have seen him playing around the whole time but I wanted the car and I had already invested an entire day over there. I convinced myself to keep going. After many more of the salesman’s little tricks, like making me wait for hours to speak to the financing guy, I was finally exhausted and wanted to drive off the lot and go home. I was given a pile of papers to sign and told, “as soon as you sign these papers, you’ll be the new owner of your car and can go home”. I asked what percentage of financing they were giving me and they told me not to worry about it. I insisted and finally they said 12%. I have excellent credit and told them I wouldn’t go for it. They pretended to look at their computer and said “oh yeah, ok I can give you 10.4%”. At that point, I told them to jump in a lake and I walked out to everyone’s surprise. A couple weeks later, I bought a newer version of the same car from another dealership for less money than I would have spent with their financing.
Wikipedia has a great example of cognitive dissonance on smoking:
Smoking is often postulated as an example of cognitive dissonance because it is widely accepted that cigarettes cause lung cancer, yet virtually everyone wants to live a long and healthy life. In terms of the theory, the desire to live a long life is dissonant with the activity of doing something that will most likely shorten one’s life. The tension produced by these contradictory ideas can be reduced by quitting smoking, denying the evidence of lung cancer, or justifying one’s smoking. For example, smokers could rationalize their behavior by concluding that only a few smokers become ill, that it only happens to very heavy smokers, or that if smoking does not kill them, something else will. This and other forms of chemical addiction are not so clear-cut, but this analysis may be valid for those wanting to start smoking.
This case of dissonance could also be interpreted in terms of a threat to the self-concept. The thought, “I am increasing my risk of lung cancer” is dissonant with the self-related belief, “I am a smart, reasonable person who makes good decisions.” Because it is often easier to make excuses than it is to change behavior, dissonance theory leads to the conclusion that humans are rationalizing and not always rational beings.
As you can see, people play games with themselves to make themselves feel that they are doing the right thing and to rationalize their behaviour. Nobody should even open up an email from a stranger in Nigeria. I should have left the car dealership at the first bait and switch they pulled. Smokers should admit to themselves that smoking is bad for their health and contradicts their want to live. To get lucky, you need to be true to yourself and take a slap to your ego. Otherwise, you will just continue to fool yourself and open yourself up to being scammed even more and putting yourself in positions that you don’t want to be in. Cognitive dissonance prevents us from getting lucky and moving forward in our lives by making us protect our egos over doing what is best for ourselves and our future. Once again, slap that ego into place and do what’s right and you’ll start to get lucky.