COVID 19 and cognitive dissonance

With COVID 19 restrictions gradually being lifted, there is an expectation that the anxiety and stress we’ve felt since social isolation began will also ease.  In some cases this will happen, but for others it will be a rocky road back to “normal.”  Letting go of the changes that we’ve made to cope with the pandemic will be a trigger for anxiety and stress in much of the workforce.

Continue to work from home, or go back to the office?

Perhaps the most obvious change in the workplace as a result of COVID-19 was the mass shift from the traditional office environment to working from home.  In many cases, this may have been the first time that employers and employees have had to negotiate the world of teleconferencing and video calls, mastering online etiquette, and working relatively unsupervised.  Some probably didn’t enjoy the experience, but it is likely that many others did, finding themselves increasingly productive in their home environment.  Eliminating daily travel time and random interruptions as well as having a quiet environment in which to concentrate enhanced productivity and generated fresh ideas.  Now both groups find themselves in a bit of a quandary.  What is the new normal when the COVID-19 dust settles?  Working from home or going back to the office?

Let’s look at the employees who actually enjoyed working from home for a moment.  For any number of reasons, including no commute, cheaper/healthier lunches, no need to dress to impress, higher productivity due to less interruptions, fewer meetings, and so on, they may now hold a belief that working from home is best suited to their needs.  Now they face dealing with the reality that their employer wants them to return to the office as soon as possible.  This employee may have no choice but to return to the workplace, despite their beliefs about working from home being at odds with returning to the office.  Here we can see a clash (dissonance) between their belief (working at home suits me) and their actions (I have to go back into the office, so into the office I go).

In the 1950s, the social psychologist Leon Festinger (1957) developed the cognitive dissonance theory to explain why people experience discomfort when their beliefs clash with their behaviour.  Festinger observed a universal desire for harmony in all of us and the negative effect on our well-being when there is an inconsistency between our beliefs and actions.  When we recognise the dissonance caused by this inconsistency, we will experience mental discomfort.  The greater the gap between the importance that we place on the belief and our actions, the higher the level of motivation to deal with the dissonance.

So how do we deal with this cognitive dissonance? We explore this in part 2 of our ‘COVID-19 and cognitive dissonance’ series.


Reference:  Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance, Row & Peterson.

Matt Wilson

Author Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is a design and transformation coach specialising in individual, group, and organisational transformation. A graduate of the INSEAD Executive Master of Change program, he is passionate about the psychology of change and in particular, finding solutions to overcome resistance to change.

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