FloodFlash Behavioural Science series: cognitive dissonance

In last month’s edition of our series, we delved into the framing effect. This effect suggests that how we describe, explain, or frame information significantly influences the decisions individuals make. For example, the way we frame flood risk plays a key role in how well individuals understand their flood risk, which subsequently impacts flood preparedness. This month, we’reexploring the idea of cognitive dissonance. 

What is cognitive dissonance?

American social psychologist Leon Festinger first proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance in 1957. The theory suggests that humans have an inner driver to keep our cognitions (i.e., knowledge, opinions, or beliefs about the environment, oneself, or one’s behaviour) in harmony. Dissonance refers to the opposition or contradiction between two thoughts or behaviours. 

Cognitive dissonance arises when an individual has two opposing thoughts. This can result in an uncomfortable feeling that individuals seek to avoid or resolve.

We find these inconsistencies uncomfortable and so we are motivated to avoid or resolve cognitive dissonance to reduce the discomfort we feel. This can lead to one of three key defence mechanisms:

  1. Avoiding – people may avoid or ignore the inconsistency. They may avoid people or situations that remind them of it, discourage people from talking about it, or distract themselves from it. 
  2. Delegitimizing – people may try to delegitimize or undermine evidence of one of the contradicting thoughts. They might discredit the person, group or situation that highlighted the inconsistency, for example suggesting the source is untrustworthy or bias.
  3. Limiting impact – people may aim to limit the discomfort by belittling its importance. They may claim the behaviour is a one-off event or provide rational arguments to convince themselves or others the behaviour is ok. 

Alternatively, individuals may seek to resolve the inconsistency. They may alter their beliefs, attitudes, or even behaviours to achieve mental harmony.

Cognitive dissonance in action

We all experience cognitive dissonance to some degree. Most people want to be healthy, but far fewer live a lifestyle filled with exercise and a nutritious diet. The result: the unhealthy behaviour contradicts the ideal of being healthy, so you feel guilty. 

We will all experience cognitive dissonance a daily basis.
Many individuals feel a sense of discomfort if they don’t live a healthy lifestyle. That’s because this behaviour contradicts the knowledge that they should (and want to) be healthy. 

Similarly, people who smoke will often feel cognitive dissonance. While an individual may know that smoking is harmful to their health, they continue the habit. To reduce the dissonance between the awareness of the health risks and the behaviour of smoking, the person may rationalise the habit. They may convince themselves that “it is impossible to quit” or that “one or two cigarettes aren’t that bad.”

A more complex example of cognitive dissonance is the case of “The Seekers”. The Seekers believed that UFOs would save them from a catastrophic flood on December 21, 1954. Many members abandoned their jobs, families, and possessions. When aliens did not arrive, the group were faced with evidence that contradicted their beliefs, and therefore experienced cognitive dissonance. Some went back home and abandoned their beliefs. However, more interestingly, those who stayed changed the church’s scripture, shifting the focus from the failed rescue day to a more open-ended “future”. This allowed the remaining members to justify the sacrifices they made for their religion and feel that it was worthwhile.

What does cognitive dissonance mean for flood insurance

Cognitive dissonance can be observed in various ways when it comes to flood. For instance, individuals may be aware of the potential dangers of a high-risk area, but still choose to live there. They may downplay the risk and tell themselves that “it won’t happen to them.” This is a way of reducing cognitive dissonance between their knowledge of flood risks and their decision to stay in a vulnerable area. 

Of course, many people don’t have the resources to make themselves more resilient or move out of an at-risk area. They may be forced to employ one or more of the defence mechanisms above, for example, avoiding information that focusses on their risk. 

Cognitive dissonance also influences how individuals perceive the need for flood insurance. Despite living in flood plains and being aware of their risk, some people might decide to not purchase insurance coverage. This may convince themselves that a flood event is unlikely to affect them directly (see our optimism bias article) or that physical resilience measures like flood barriers will be enough to protect them. This is an attempt to align their risk perception with their unwillingness to invest in flood insurance, therefore reducing their cognitive dissonance.

52% of smaller firms on UK floodplains do not have flood insurance.

A large proportion of London is a floodplain to the River Thames, but not all businesses at risk will have the necessary insurance.
Many businesses are based on floodplains, but not all have the necessary insurance, creating cognitive dissonance.

Another reason individuals may avoid purchasing insurance despite being aware of their risk is because they believe in their ability to cope with flood-related damages if they were to happen. They might believe that they have the financial resources to recover from a flood without insurance. Unfortunately, for most individuals and businesses, the reality is often vastly different.

Many businesses may want to invest in flood insurance, but simply be unable to due to high premiums, or exclusions. They also may be unaware of the options available to them, or what cover they may need. Like those who are unable to move away from a high-risk area, these individuals may try to avoid information that showcases their risk to reduce their feeling of discomfort.

How can FloodFlash help reduce cognitive dissonance?

FloodFlash can help to reduce the cognitive dissonance people feel in several ways. Using a parametric approach, we provide flood cover to those the insurance industry has left behind. That means we can offer cover to businesses who are aware of their risk and who were previously unable to afford or find flood coverage that meets their needs, reducing the dissonance and discomfort they feel.

Unlike traditional insurance policies, FloodFlash pay out a predetermined amount of money as soon as water reaches the customer’s selected depth. This means that policyholders with flood resilience measures can choose a higher trigger depth, lowering their premium. This lowers the dissonance, or discomfort they feel, as they no longer have two competing cognitions – they are aware of their flood risk, and they have insurance that covers their needs.

Many businesses may have cover in place that is insufficient for the needs, resulting in dissonance. The insights we provide also help to reduce this. From our blogs (this one included!) and magazines to our expert support and smart quote service, educating customers on the impact a flood might have is a good way to align their fears, hopes, risk, and budget, and feel confident about the cover they have in place.