Give Me a Reason to Believe

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist, and Jake McKenzie, Chief Executive Officer

As much as we would like to believe we are all about the facts and nothing but the facts, we all have hidden biases and self-serving inconsistencies that are slightly out of step with the information around us. Psychologists refer to this illusion as cognitive dissonance, an automatic response to information that does not fit with our beliefs or self-image.

Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort we feel when we encounter information that does not align with our existing beliefs or when we engage in behaviors that contradict who we believe ourselves to be. It can be triggered by something as simple as hearing an opinion we disagree with or performing a behavior that is contrary to how we see ourselves. When these things happen, our brain automatically searches for a way to resolve those newly discovered inconsistencies so it can get rid of the associated mental discomfort.

For example, our self-image may be that of a law-abiding citizen, but what happens when we happen to accidentally run a red light? We can simply ignore the new information, “That wasn’t a red light.” We can change our beliefs and behaviors to match the new information, “Yep, I’m kind of a rebel, maybe I’ll run that stop sign too.” Or we look for reasons to discount or rationalize away the new information, “Running that red light doesn’t really count. It changed without any warning. Besides, everyone is doing it.” In this way, our brain is continually protecting itself by automatically addressing and removing this mental discomfort whenever it occurs.

A recent study published in the American Political Science Review, suggests that gender and wealth are moderating factors in the levels of concern associated with climate change. The study’s findings suggest that as a nation becomes wealthier, females are more likely than their male counterparts to view climate change as a concern. Whereas when a nation becomes poorer, males are the ones who become more likely to view climate change as a concern. The researchers suggest that these differences in concern are due to the perceived costs and benefits associated with climate change policies. When the benefits of climate change policies outweighed their costs, participants’ concerns about climate change increased. When the costs of climate change policies outweighed their benefits, participants’ concerns about climate change decreased. This study provides an excellent example of how cognitive dissonance helps form our attitudes, balance our self-image, and make our decisions surrounding the issue of climate change.

In marketing, there are various ways we can help reduce or avoid creating a state of cognitive dissonance among consumers when framing our messaging around climate change.

  • We can reframe the issue of climate change to be more in alignment with one of the target audience’s beliefs by providing them with information that confirms their self-image (e.g., “This is good for your family and children” or “This saves money over time.”)
  • We can directly address the common rationalizations used to justify their existing attitudes about climate change. (e.g., “Doing your part for climate change is really quite easy.“)
  • Finally, we can avoid triggering cognitive dissonance in the first place by using phrases like, “environmentally friendly” instead of more heavily loaded phrases like “climate change.”

To better understand consumer psychology and to learn more about psychological principles like cognitive dissonance in your marketing, give us a call at 833-579-1905 or email us at [email protected]. And to see more about how to market to people who don’t agree with your message, check out Why We Stick To Our Beliefs from our Ad Psych Field Trip Series!