Did you ever start to like an activity that you disliked before? Whether you did or did not, you can make this psychological phenomenon work for you to enhance the fun you are getting out of any activity. I will share three tips to use cognitive dissonance to enhance your happiness while enhancing your health at the same time.

Golden Behaviors

– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –

Reading time: 5 minutes

I find that it is fun to run. And more so every week. I notice that I am increasingly interested in reading about running to get better at it. I’m also running more frequently, various speeds and longer distances. Whereas in the previous 134 activities, I ran the same route of exactly 6.6 kilometers once a week as fast as I could, now I’ve tried different routes, a distance as long as 9.3 kilometers and have ran 2-4 times a week in various speeds. Previously, running was a mandatory exercise, now I’m actually enjoying myself. This may be because of cognitive dissonance

Have you ever experienced internal psychological inconsistencies?

Cognitive dissonance was first discovered by the American social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. Cognitive dissonance explains how people attempt to achieve internal psychological consistency, for example when people go running, but are not particularly fond of running (like me). When they experience such internal inconsistency, they tend to become psychologically uncomfortable and are motivated to reduce this dissonance. Logically, it is possible to go running and not like it at the same time. But psychologically, this is difficult, because performing an activity that people do not like is difficult. After all, why would you perform an activity, when you do not like it?

Discovering cognitive dissonance

Festinger devised an experiment to test peoples’ level of cognitive dissonance. The participants in the study were instructed to do a couple of very boring tasks for about an hour (they were asked to turn pegs clockwise on a board – see image below – and move spools in and out of a tray). Then the participants were asked to tell the next group of people that the task was very exciting and interesting, even though it was boring. Half of the subjects were paid $1 to do this and half were paid $20 to do this. Then participants where asked to rate whether the tasks were interesting and enjoyable. The main goal of the experiment was to see if people would change their beliefs to match their actions, in an effort to reduce the dissonance of not enjoying a task but lying about it.

There are two ways in which people can solve the inconsistency between their behavior and what they believe. One way is to tell themselves that external factors led them to this behavior. For example participants in the experiment could explain their behavior by telling themselves they were paid to do these boring tasks. In that way they can explain to themselves why they performed tasks they found boring: they got paid to do it. Another way is to tell themselves that internal factors led them to this behavior. For example participants in the experiment could explain their behavior by telling themselves that the private opinion that they held before performing the tasks was not that accurate as they expected and that the tasks were actually more enjoyable than they expected. Thus people frequently reduce dissonance by changing how they think about their activities. So they may change the way they feel about running (as I have; I feel I actually like it).

Two conclusions were obtained from the results.

First, if people are induced to do or say something which is contrary to their private opinion, there will be a tendency for them to change their opinion so as to bring it into correspondence with what they have done or said.

Second, in order for an change in opinion to occur, the reward needs to be small. When the reward is small, it is more difficult for people to tell themselves that the reward (external factor) led them to do this behavior. Therefore, people will be more likely to explain their behavior by changing their opinions about their behavior. They could reduce the inconsistency between their behavior and their private opinion by admitting to themselves that the tasks turned out to be more enjoyable and had more advantages than they had originally thought. The participants that received $1 where therefore much more likely to provide high ratings for the task compared to participants that received $20.

How to have fun doing not-so-fun activities

So dissonance occurs when you hold an opinion about an activity or behavior that you belief not to be fun. As it happens, you still need to spend considerable time on this activity. This will be psychologically uncomfortable and motivates you to take action to reduce the dissonance. You will frequently rationalize your behavior by changing how you feel about this activity. This can help you to experience more fun during, and after performing this activity. It is important that you have freely decided to perform the activity, otherwise you can alleviate your dissonance easily. It will then be easy to believe that you performed the activity because of coercion by someone else. In this way, you will not enhance your level of fun.

First tip: put in variation in the intensity, frequency, and length of your activities. You have no absolute way of comparing the intensity of our work-outs. You most likely compare it to the memories of your toughest work-out. By occasionally putting in a tough work-out, your other work-outs seem easy in comparison and are more enjoyable. Also vary frequency of your work-outs. When you aim for 2 workouts a week and perform 3 work-outs in a particular week, than you have good reason to be happy. Moreover, you can deposit this extra work-out on the balance of your imaginary work-out account. When you are on holiday or otherwise not available, then you can draw from your this imaginary work-out account and still get to an average of 2 work-outs a week. I would suggest to always have a few workouts on your mental work-out account, but not too many either. I would say between 1-3 would be nice. Finally, vary the length of your activities. It is more important for your motivation to actually do the work-out then the length of it. That will help you to overcome procrastination of your workouts, it is one of my personal favorites from an earlier blog.  

Second tip: increase your exercise. The activity will become easier both physically and psychologically. The more you exercise, the more your body gets accustomed to this activity. The first time exercising after your holiday is often hard, because your body and muscles have been less active for a while. In the same way, the more you exercise, the more your mind gets accustomed to performing this activity. It does help to plan your work-outs on the same time and day every week, as I’ve explained earlier.

Third tip: use some sort of checklist. We all like to check things of their list. Also it is a highly visible way of remembering your achievements. For me this checklist is Runkeeper, which shows how many times I have ran last week or last month (see my activities in the screenshot below). It can be any other app, but also be on a Post-It on your fridge, peats on a chalkboard, or knots in the laces of your running shoes, as long as it is clearly visible to you.

Let me know in the comments for which type of activities you found these tips useful. And please share other nudges that you use to enhance your happiness while enhancing your health!

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Niels Vink (1975) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral designer. He uses insights from the behavioral sciences to explain why people often act against their own interests. As a behavioral expert, he explores how you can nudge your behavior for a healthy lifestyle. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior.

When you have been inspired to start and maintain your Golden Behaviors, reach out to me.

Source of top image: Somchai Chitprathak


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