Home > Aging > Will you waver over the same tough decision 20 years later? Cognitive dissonance is wove into the aging story.

Will you waver over the same tough decision 20 years later? Cognitive dissonance is wove into the aging story.

Do older adults more often feel relieved than younger people? You may sometimes have similar questions in your mind. Imagine this scenario: when you commute to work, you catch a glimpse of a couple of elders sitting on rocking chairs in their backyards as if the hustle and bustle of the world no longer matter to them. Your guess is partially correct. As people get older, they seem to live light-hearted lives because they have mastered regulating their emotions positively. Nevertheless, people indeed face hurdles in their lives regardless of age. When people hold inconsistent cognitions in their minds, they experience a state of mental discomfort called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance refers to the perception of contradictory information in one’s actions, beliefs, and thoughts. For example, smokers are likely to experience cognitive dissonance because their smoking behavior runs against the common concept that nicotine harms their health. Likewise, people usually experience cognitive dissonance in making difficult decisions because people need to justify their choice as the better one even though they value both options equally. The discrepancy between behavior and belief creates uncomfortable feelings, which motivate people to change their attitudes or behaviors to reduce the unease dissonance experience. 

People incline to comforting lies to resolve their cognitive dissonance. Picture is taken from https://www.thedailystar.net/shout/life/news/the-phenomenon-cognitive-dissonance-1685263

Observations of people’s happy later years raise the question of whether older adults experience cognitive dissonance. You may guess yes because people cannot control what they see and hear from the outside world. Considering the age-related cognitive processes, we need to pay extra attention to the interaction between aging factors and cognitive dissonance. In other words, as people get older, the magnitude of cognitive dissonance and its impact on one’s emotional well-being may change. A recent study unveils that cognitive dissonance is a robust phenomenon for adults regardless of age (Cooper & Feldman, 2019). Since people grow to learn how to manage their emotions, another tempting question is, do older adults have different strategies to reduce cognitive dissonance? In the rest of the blog, I will unveil the underlying mechanisms of cognitive dissonance and discuss how age-related changes in cognitive abilities affect older adults’ dissonance experience and dissonance reduction.  

Cognitive dissonance occurs when people simultaneously hold conflicting cognitions in their minds. One of the relevant cognitive functions is executive function, which encompasses attention, inhibitory control, and working memory (Reuter-Lorenz et al., 2016). People use the executive function to coordinate their cognitive functions, such as attention and memory processes in everyday activities. Specifically, age-related deficits in executive function can be manifested as inhibitory dysfunction, which refers to the inability to get rid of information that is irrelevant to their goals (Reuter-Lorenz et al., 2016). For example, people with deficits in executive function are likely to cram various information in their minds, leading them to feel rather hard to stay focused on the task that is important to achieve goals. 

So, how do age-related deficits in executive function influence cognitive dissonance? The key is that the deficits in executive function impact information processing abilities, including the ways people detect new information, encode it into short-term working memory, and give a response to it. The inhibition deficit predisposes people to absorb too much information they cannot interpret thoroughly. Going back to the smoker example, if we compare a younger smoker with an older smoker, it would be possible that the older smoker experience less cognitive dissonance than the younger smoker. Due to the declined inhibitory control, the older smoker gets easily distracted from the health versus nicotine problem. As a result, the older smoker experiences less stress and uncomfortable feelings from the inconsistency between smoking behavior and health beliefs.  

Emotion regulation changing with age also explains why older adults have different dissonant experiences from younger people. According to the socioemotional selectivity theory (see more about the theory in the post), older adults’ motivation changes are based on their social roles shifting. Older adults will shift their focus on life from learning something new to seeking pleasure. When you are approaching the end of a life-long journey, you probably will not waste time and energy dealing with hitches. Knowing the limited time horizon drives older adults to prioritize pleasure-seeking goals. Consequently, older individuals adjust their mindset and emotion regulation strategies to deal with negative emotions that undermine their happiness. Finding an emotionally meaningful goal in the relationship and life achievement become increasingly important with chronological age (Carstensen et al., 2003). This suggests that older adults attune to positive information since positive information is generally relevant to pleasure-seeking behaviors and satisfying life goals. 

Older adults’s pleasant vibe. Picture from https://fairviewadc.com/recreation/positive-thinking-power-seniors/

The socioemotional selectivity theory explains how the age-related change in motivation contributes to the positivity effect (Hicks et al., 2012). The positivity effect refers to an inclination toward positive information. The positivity effect increases as people age (Mather & Carstensen, 2005). Whenever older adults meet cognitive dissonance, their attention will be pivoted toward positive information within the dissonant cognitions. The socioemotional selectivity theory explains how the age-related change in motivation contributes to the positivity effect (Hicks et al., 2012). The positivity effect affects older adults to develop two routes to reduce cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, older adults may strive to resolve the discordance by changing their beliefs or actions to reduce the uneasy feeling of inconsistency. On the other hand, older adults can choose to ignore the dissonant cognitions in their minds. The positivity effect can buffer the uncomfortable feelings of cognitive dissonance. If older adults don’t attend to the dissonant information, they will be free from cognitive dissonance. 

If older adults show a comparable level of cognitive dissonance as younger people, will the dissonance-based intervention be similarly useful in the older population? The answer is yes. The core of the cognitive dissonance-based intervention program is to engage people in counter-attitudinal behaviors (e.g., ask college students to write a paragraph to support the rising tuition) to change beliefs through cognitive dissonance reduction (U.S National Library of Medicine, 2017). Cognitive dissonance interventions have a wide range of implications for developing healthy behaviors and moral learning. Cooper and Feldman (2019) investigated the effectiveness of the dissonance-based intervention in promoting older adults’ health-related physical activity. The dissonance-based intervention raised older adults’ awareness of their inconsistent beliefs and action. Specifically, when you try to advocate that taking more exercise is promising for health, the elderly normally agree with this statement without hesitancy. The cognitive dissonance intervention helps the elderly recognize that their past behaviors are not in line with what they believe about physical exercise.

Future explorations need to be made to determine the effectiveness of cognition dissonance intervention on the aging population. Although a common view about cognitive dissonance is of discomfort, an interesting perspective on the dissonance-based intervention is that no matter what age group you belong to, you can reshape your action/belief through self-learning! When people step into the last stages of their life journey, it’s not a bad idea to learn how to live with cognitive dissonance to improve emotional well-being.


Cooper, J., & Feldman, L. A. (2019). Does cognitive dissonance occur in older age? A study of induced compliance in a healthy elderly population. Psychology and Aging34(5), 709–713. https://doi.org/10.1037/pag0000338

Cooper, J., & Feldman, L. A. (2020). Helping the “couch potato”: A cognitive dissonance approach to increasing exercise in the elderly. Journal of Applied Social Psychology50(1), 33–40. https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12639

Hicks, J. A., Trent, J., Davis, W. E., & King, L. A. (2012). Positive affect, meaning in life, and future time perspective: An application of socioemotional selectivity theory. Psychology and Aging27(1), 181–189. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023965

Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2005). Aging and motivated cognition: The positivity effect in attention and memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences9(10), 496–502. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2005.08.005

Reuter-Lorenz, P. A., Festini, S. B., & Jantz, T. K. (2016). Executive Functions and Neurocognitive Aging. In Handbook of the Psychology of Aging (pp. 245–262). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-411469-2.00013-3

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