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Let’s pretend that you have a workout routine and suddenly realize that today is leg day. I know, not a great start to an article on persuasion against stigma, but stay with me. As you think through just how much you despise leg day, you realize that you ran out of pre-workout on Tuesday. Following this realization, you think to yourself, “It probably would be more worth my time and energy to simply wait a couple of days until I can buy some more before I do leg day.” After this brief but effective conversation with yourself, you decide not to go to the gym and continue eating your delicious, protein-packed breakfast of twelve scrambled eggs and six waffles. 

Besides the consumption of waffles, what just happened? How exactly were you able to convince yourself not to go to the gym? While there are many different ways to process this scenario that provide an insightful explanation, the one that I would like to propose today is a communication theory called Cognitive Dissonance. In applying this theory to both the story above and life in general (debate rounds included, don’t you worry), your ability to insightfully understand the mental barriers that prevent people from changing their minds to agree with you will improve greatly. 

Let’s start with the example above as I explain what Cognitive Dissonance is. My initial thought on fixing your problem of avoiding leg day is actually to just switch to something like pilates, which is great for dexterity, and you don’t need pre-workout. Second, the tension that you experienced between knowing that you should go to the gym in an effort to be diligent to your schedule and the reality that you didn’t actually go to the gym is the heart of Cognitive Dissonance. It is a state of existence people experience when there is an inconsistency between “a person’s two beliefs or a belief and an action.” (Griffin, 2012) This communication theory also states that when humans experience this condition, they will do everything in their power to eliminate this dissonance (Tavris, 2015). In our earlier example of conflict between action and belief, one of those had to change. In the end, it was your belief. You presented the reality of pre-workout as a way to resolve the tension, thus eliminating the Cognitive Dissonance.

As debaters, we can anticipate the regular challenge of presenting ideas to others that go against the subconscious beliefs that our audiences may have. And more often than we care to admit, these deeply-layered ideas often become critical issues in the round. The challenge is that these deeper ideas often seem untouchable and therefore leave us with confusing ballots and bad tastes in our mouths. However, in understanding that those rounds often end without satisfying resolution because we have unknowingly forced the judge into a cognitive dissonance without helping them resolve it, we are better able to understand how to strategize against these outcomes. 

With the why question answered, my next article will explore a speaker’s favorite part – application. This is where we will explore the question of “how” and understand more of the inner strategies for how we can actively reframe and adapt to portions of our arguments that may create dissonance in our audience. Hopefully, you’ll be back at the gym in no time. 

Jala Boyer has earned numerous 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place medals and competed at the NCFCA National Championship in five categories. As an intern on the Student Advisory Council of the NCFCA, Jala worked alongside the executive director, Kim Cromer, to learn the inner workings of competitive speech and debate, helping students create long-term and meaningful success. Jala is currently an Honors student at Liberty University studying communications with an emphasis in politics. To book a coaching session with Jala, follow this link https://www.ethosdebate.com/ coaching/book-coach/ 


Griffin, E. (2012). A first look at communication theory. McGraw-Hill Publishing. 

Carol Tavris [@GRCCtv]. (March, 20, 2015) Psychology Lecture Series: Self-Justification in Everyday Life. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYcgiX70WsI&t=1s&pp=ygUjY29nbml0aXZlIGRpc3NvbmFuY2UgdGhlb3J5IGxlY3R1cmU%3D

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