Cognitive Dissonance in Sport
We are referring here to something that is negative about an athlete’s positive sporting experience. A simplistic example could be of a successful athlete who is thoroughly enjoying their sport but who has an ethical objection to having to a team sponsor who has been shown to have dubious ethical standards. The outcome can be disharmony, unease and a general sense that ‘this doesn’t feel right.’ On one hand there is the enjoyment of peak performance and the associated success whereas on the other hand the ethics of the situation create psychological disharmony. A further example could be the athlete who is fully committed to their sport but who dislikes the uncouth, authoritarian style of their manager and who encounters their manager’s manner as an obstacle to performance and enjoyment.

In his book ‘A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance’ (1957), Leon Festinger proposed that human beings strive for internal psychological consistency to function well in everyday life. Cognitive dissonance theory is a psychological theory that proposes that when cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, values, attitudes, perceptions) or behaviours are inconsistent with one another, a negative psychological state of ‘dissonance’ occurs and that the resultant tension motivates the individual to make an attitudinal change to produce consistency between thoughts, beliefs, values, attitudes, perceptions and behaviour.

This internal psychological disharmony on the part of the athlete can result in compartmentalisation of the negative aspect of the positive experience that causes the dissonance. In some instances it may even lead to shut down. The athlete strongly believers that for optimal performance to occur that encouragement and support are required from the manager and that the intimidatory, fear-based approach used by the manager is a major irritant at best and a major barrier to success and enjoyment at worst. Either way performance is highly likely to suffer via dips in motivation, commitment and effort because if we seek internal harmony between cognitions and behaviours and are exposed to circumstances that are incongruent with what we seek the negatively arousing cognitive conflict (dissonance) that results becomes an unwelcome distraction, a drain on our concentration and commitment levels and ultimately a threat to enjoyment and performance.

So. . . What To Do?
Importantly Festinger proposed that “dissonance, that is, the existence of nonfitting relations among cognitions, is a motivating factor in its own right.” In this case a motivation to reduce the dissonance, but how can this be achieved? The following are four possibilities.

  1. Change one or more cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, values, attitudes, perceptions) by acquiring new information that devalues or outweighs the dissonant cognitions thereby reducing their importance.
  2. Discard one or more cognitions.
  3. Emotional Regulation. This refers to managing the emotional correlates of the state of dissonance.
  4. Change the behaviour that is causing the dissonance. For both examples above the athlete could simply highlight their concerns with a view to affecting change instead of blindly complying. The nuclear option would be to remove themselves from the situations that are responsible for the dissonance and to go elsewhere.

The Benefits of Eliminating Cognitive Dissonance In Sport?
Harmony across cognition and behaviours resulting in a greater likelihood of enjoyment and of optimal performance.

Finally . . .
Eliminating cognitive dissonance may not be as easy as this article suggests. The first step is, of course, to identify it, a task that can be both daunting and difficult because cognitions can be deeply held, because emotional responses can be conditioned and complex, and because sports behaviours can serve a variety of purposes in addition to performance.

If you feel that you may benefit from some assistance in identifying and eliminating cognitive dissonance in sport with a view to performance enhancement and increased enjoyment of your sport, I would be delighted to hear from you.

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