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See Inside February/March 2006

Purple Shoes or Blue?

Why do we agonize over so many choices? More important, how do we find peace of mind once we choose?

BORED WHILE WAITING at the bus stop, Kate sticks a cigarette in her mouth just as she notices a billboard across the road. The small print reads, “Warning: Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and may complicate pregnancy.” Kate stops for a moment. “How many have I had already today?” she asks herself. But then she lights up. “I don’t smoke that much,” she reasons, to quiet her conscience. “And anyway, I exercise and eat pretty well.”

Every day we wrestle with opposing viewpoints that battle it out in our minds—a tension known as cognitive dissonance. Social psychologist Leon Festinger developed the concept in 1957, from the assumption that human beings fundamentally strive for harmony in their thinking. In the face of contradictory paths, our minds attempt to restore internal peace. We strive for the reconciliation of two conflicting thoughts, even if we must resort to a third to attain it, such as, “Gramps smoked a pack a day, and he lived to be 90.”

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