Post-decision dissonance refers to the psychological discomfort or inner conflict that a person may experience after deciding between multiple options.
This discomfort arises from the belief that there might have been better alternatives available that they did not choose.
For instance, let’s say that you are buying a car. From all available choices, you concluded that going for Model A was better than its alternative – Model B. However, euphoria fades soon when you begin to doubt yourself, thinking that Model B was possibly preferable after all.
This is post-decision dissonance, a phenomenon that occurs when your belief in the wisdom of your choice (Model A) doesn’t quite match up with anxious thoughts on whether another option (Model B) might have been a superior option for you.
Post-decision dissonance can lead individuals to second-guess their decision-making skills and cause them to experience dissatisfaction or regret.
Definition of Post-Decision Dissonance
Post-decision dissonance is the inner conflict or discomfort that a person feels after making a choice or decision (Alcock & Sadava, 2014).
This discomfort arises because the individual realizes that other options they did not choose may have had some benefits and advantages. In other words, it’s the feeling of regret or uncertainty one experiences after making a choice.
As per Rosenfeld and colleagues (1986), “if a decision is made, especially one involving several attractive alternatives, cognitive dissonance is aroused because of the inconsistency between the negative characteristics of the chosen alternative and the positive characteristics of the nonchosen alternative” (p. 663).
According to Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, people strive to have consistency between their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 2019).
People often feel uncomfortable or anxious when they have conflicting thoughts or information. To ease this discomfort, they may adjust their beliefs or actions.
Post-decision dissonance specifically occurs when a person makes an important choice from several available options (Alcock & Sadava, 2014).
After making the decision, the individual starts rationalizing why they made it over the other options and convincing themselves that it was indeed the best choice.
This process helps reduce feelings of regret and doubt about whether one made the right decision (Oshikawa, 1970).
For example, if someone decides to purchase a car after considering multiple options but later hears about a better deal for another car model they did not choose may experience post-decision dissonance.
They will try to justify why they chose that particular vehicle by highlighting its positive features while downplaying other vehicles’ advantages.
10 Examples of Post-Decision Dissonance
- Buying a car: After buying a car, you might feel conflicted about the decision because of its cost, features, and performance. You might experience discomfort in knowing that other cars could have suited your needs better.
- Choosing a career path: When deciding which career path to pursue, you may start experiencing doubt and second-guessing your choice. You may wonder if other careers could have offered higher pay or more personal satisfaction.
- Selecting a college: When choosing a college, you may experience dissonance after committing to one school over another. You may worry about whether this was the right choice or if other schools would fit your interests and future goals more.
- Marriage proposal: After proposing to someone, you might question whether they were truly “the one.” Post-decisional dissonance can often arise when individuals make big life decisions affecting their long-term lives.
- Accepting a job offer: If someone accepts an employment offer only to receive another one subsequently with better pay or work location, they will likely feel stress over having to back out of the original agreement.
- Purchasing new clothes: Post-decision dissonance also happens when at the boutique while purchasing clothes or shoes/dresses for any occasion due to price range clash or less range diversity. You will likely start questioning the purchase if you buy something much more expensive than budgeted.
- Voting in elections: After casting down vote on any political candidate, voters can sometimes feel confused because of doubtfulness before voting and a lack of voter education. So, people might change their minds after getting to know more information about the candidates.
- Shopping online: E-commerce websites such as Amazon frequently offer numerous items with comparable brands and features, which can lead to post-purchase dissonance. This means feeling remorseful about not selecting other options after purchasing the chosen product.
- Picking up food preferences from the menu cards at restaurants: Struggle in choosing what food item should be opted for among lucrative menu items, which swerves us into realizing that we need to stick to designs that become more difficult to carry out.
- Reasoning on educational options: Choosing whether to pursue Science, Commerce, or Arts after finishing school can lead to feelings of uncertainty afterward because it necessitates adjusting one’s life goals. So, the feeling of regret or doubt may arise after picking one option over another.
Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory is a psychological theory that states when an individual holds two or more conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or values, they experience psychological discomfort.
This discomfort is known as cognitive dissonance and can cause people to take actions that reduce this discomfort, such as changing their beliefs to fit their actions or changing their actions to fit their beliefs (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 2019).
Festinger (1957) believed that people strive for cognitive consistency, meaning they want congruent thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Thus when contradictory ideas arise, individuals feel uneasy and seek ways to minimize this tension.
Furthermore, Festinger (1957) proposed three main factors in his cognitive dissonance theory:
- Inconsistency: The theory assumes that people hold various cognitions about themselves and their world. When these thoughts or beliefs conflict with each other meanings, there’s an inconsistency.
- Discomfort: The recognition of inconsistency leads to arousal (discomfort), referred to as cognitive dissonance.
- Reduction of discomfort: To relieve the feeling of discomfort associated with the inconsistency between two behaviors or a belief and behavior, people may alter one cognition/belief/attitude to be consistent with the other to gain more harmony in their thoughts and actions.
Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory suggests that people strive to achieve a state of harmony by resolving discrepancies among their ideas.
However, this may not necessarily result in logical actions or rational decision-making, as our perceptions can affect how we interpret situations and ultimately guide our choices.
Causes of Post-Decision Dissonance
Post-decision dissonance arises after an individual makes a decision that leads to cognitive discomfort, considering different factors – from inadequate information to alternatives’ attractiveness.
There are several causes of post-decision dissonance, including:
- Inadequate information: If the decision was made based on insufficient information, a person is likely to experience post-decision dissonance since they may doubt the validity of their choice if they think additional facts would have helped.
- High stakes: The more significant the consequences of a decision are, the greater likelihood of post-decisional discomfort. This usually happens when significant financial investments or relationships come into play.
- Irreversibility: The inability to reverse a decision heightens post-decision dissonance since its effects become permanent, and any mistakes cannot be undone.
- Emotional attachment: Emotionally invested people become much more sensitive to decisions about their bond with someone or something than those without emotional attachment.
- Decision relevance: Decisions directly associated with personal identity due to being matters of importance in defining oneself (e.g., religion, values) may lead to increased levels of post-decisional distress than less personally important choices.
- Alternatives’ attractiveness: If other options seem appealing enough, you may begin to factor in considerations you previously ignored when making your initial choice. This can create confusion about whether you made the best decision possible, especially if you start ignoring factors that didn’t work out with your choice.
Consequences of Post-Decision Dissonance
Post-decision dissonance can have a range of consequences – from increased stress and anxiety to reduced satisfaction with outcomes – that affect both an individual’s psychology and their external behavior (Alcock & Sadava, 2014).
Here are some of the main consequences:
- Increased stress and anxiety: Individuals who are experiencing post-decisional discomfort may feel anxious or overwhelmed due to self-doubt about their chosen course of action.
- Decreased confidence: Post-decision dissonance can lower one’s confidence in their cognitive abilities leading to a decreased ability to make future decisions firmly and confidently.
- Regret: Regret is a common consequence of post-decisional distress, which arises when someone feels they didn’t make the best decision given their interpretation of information available at the time.
- Reversals or inconsistency: People may reverse previously made decisions due to an attempt at justifying consistency with new values or beliefs, even if the reversal is unfavorable financially, reputation-wise, or socially.
- Seeking validation from others: People who feel uneasy after making a decision might seek validation from others to ensure they made the right choice. However, this could lead to a problematic situation and affect their ability to make important decisions in the future.
- Reduced satisfaction with outcomes: If someone can’t come to terms with their decisions, they may still feel unhappy with the results, even if they successfully dealt with their previous emotional pain.
Post-decision dissonance can be a challenging experience for anyone facing the prospect of making significant choices. In addition, the tension of weighing multiple options and second-guessing the decision could affect one’s mental stability.
These conflicting emotions and thoughts surrounding decision-making could lead to anxiety, stress, and reduced confidence. However, understanding the causes of post-decision dissonance can help individuals manage feelings of self-doubt better.
A better understanding of post-decision dissonance and its potential consequences empowers individuals to evaluate situational demands against personal needs and values before making decisions.
It’s important to ensure that decisions are informed through adequate research into all available options and critical thinking regarding weighing the pros and cons of each alternative decision.
So, you’ll be better equipped to stand by your choice despite challenging circumstances surrounding it with fewer negative after-effects.
Alcock, J., & Sadava, S. (2014). An introduction to social psychology: Global perspectives. London: Sage.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. The American Journal of Psychology, 72(1), 153. https://doi.org/10.2307/1420234
Harmon-Jones, E., & Mills, J. (2019). An introduction to cognitive dissonance theory and an overview of current perspectives on the theory. Cognitive Dissonance: Reexamining a Pivotal Theory in Psychology (2nd Ed.)., 3–24. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000135-001
Oshikawa, S. (1970). Consumer pre-decision conflict and post-decision dissonance. Behavioral Science, 15(2), 132–140. https://doi.org/10.1002/bs.3830150204
Rosenfeld, P., Kennedy, J. G., & Giacalone, R. A. (1986). Decision making: A demonstration of the postdecision dissonance effect. The Journal of Social Psychology, 126(5), 663–665. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.1986.9713640