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  • Writer's picturekatelyn russell

How Understanding Cognitive Dissonance Can Help Us Teach Health

One of my favorite podcasts is Hidden Brain, hosted by Shankar Vedantam. I just finished a two-part episode spotlighting the decades-long work of Eliot Aranson. If you’ve ever used the Jigsaw method in your classroom, you know Eliot Aranson even if the name doesn’t sound familiar; he created the method in the 70s.

Here’s Part 1: How We Live With Contradictions and Part 2: Outsmarting Yourself for your listening pleasure. Cognitive dissonance is one of those terms that I probably learned about in Psych 101 but never truly understood. And because it’s woven into the lexicon, I’ve most definitely used it inappropriately. For those of you in the same boat, here is the definition of cognitive dissonance: when you have two beliefs that contradict one another. This doesn't feel good and because it doesn’t feel good (or, in psychology terms, is aversive) we try to reduce the dissonance by changing one of the beliefs. Or, as Arason explains in Part 2 of the podcast, by making up a story about why we believe what we believe or did what we did. It reminded me of the work of psychologist Dan Gilbert, who found that fewer choices and more concrete choices tend to make people happier.

What does all this have to do with health? In Part 2, Aranson talks about his work in health education, specifically sex education, when he created interventions aimed at increasing condom use. The interventions that spurred increased condom use in the short term didn’t work to change behavior in the long term. That is until Aranson had students create videos of themselves presenting why condom use was so important and encouraging others to use condoms and told the students it would be part of a high school health curriculum. This intervention produced significant increases in condom use that persisted to the 6-month mark.

Basically, if you make a video of yourself espousing the benefits of a health behavior that you think other people will see, you want to become a person who also does that health behavior. Not doing the health behavior and teaching others to do it would result in cognitive dissonance. We might, therefore, have students teach others in the community (in a very, very visible way) about the very health behavior that we are trying to encourage.

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