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It’s Only a Tan!

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It’s Only a Tan!

Exposing my skin to ultraviolet radiation via tanning beds causes a great degree of personal dissonance. The desire to look “sun-kissed” completely conflicts with my knowledge of the cancer-causing effects of such radiation, which is further accentuated because of my extended family’s history of skin cancer.

The theory of cognitive dissonance was first proposed by Leon Festinger, who stated that when an individual holds any “two conflicting beliefs”, he or she will experience a degree of inner turmoil (Atherton, 2003). Later, Aronson elaborated on the theory of cognitive dissonance, and found that an individual’s inner discomfort results when the reality of a person’s actions conflict with his or her previous morals or beliefs (Aronson, Wilson, Akert, 2004). When such a situation occurs, individuals must deal with an extremely unpleasant sensation of being torn in two directions by responding to the conflicting cognitions in one of three ways. First, a person might change his or her negative behavior so that it does not conflict with the previously held (usually positive) beliefs (Mallett, R., 2004, Sept. 9; Aronson, et al 2004). Second, the person might attempt to justify his or her behavior by altering their previous belief so that it is consistent with the behavior (Aronson, et al 2004; Festinger, L. & Carlsmith, J.M.). Finally, the person may simply “add additional cognitions” in order to supercede the conflicting motives (Mallett, R., 2004, Sept. 9).

In a study on the cognitive dissonance of smokers by Gibbons, Eggleston, & Benthin in 1997, the researchers studied the behavior, attitudes and opinions of smokers who attended a smoking cessation clinic, quit smoking, but later resumed smoking once more. The researchers found that when the individuals resumed smoking a second time, their perceptions of smoking were significantly lower than before attending the cessation classes. The smokers thus had to either change their previously held cognitions, by convincing themselves that smoking wasn’t too terrible, or add additional cognitions, such as “ but cigarettes relax me” in order to justify their behavior (Aronson et al, 2004, 167-168; Mallett, R., 2004, Sept. 9).

I’m a fake-and-baker. I admit it. Once, every two weeks or so, I go to a tanning salon for about 20 minutes and get nice and tan and crispy. Yes, I know it’s bad for you, but I’ve always told myself, a little bit of Vitamin D from ultraviolet light is good for you, and besides, I don’t tan all that often. Cancer? Pul-ease. My mom never wore sunscreen and spent countless hours in the Arizona sun and has never had a problem. Besides, everyone knows you look slimmer with a tan, and those lotions that promise to get you looking bronzed only make me look streaky and orange and ruin my clothes. So what if I tan? These are the best years of my life, right? Well worth it to make these years good ones.

Such was (and still partially is) my reasoning that helps to minimize the dissonance I feel about going to tanning salons. Growing up, my parents incessantly lectured me about the importance of wearing sunscreen because of my fair skin and family history of skin cancer (one of my grandfathers passed away due to skin cancer). On the one hand, I am a very health-conscious person, and nutrition and exercising have always been important to me. I therefore like to think of myself as fairly intelligent and rational, thus satisfying my self-esteem motive, or the need to feel good about myself. On the other hand, however, I quickly became a big fan of going “tanning” with my friends when I realized how many other girls were doing it, and how smooth my skin appeared afterwards. It was also a great way to bond with my new sorority sisters my first year. The reality of my behavior is that I am addicted, so to speak, to being tan.

Unfortunately, my brain isn’t very happy holding inconsistent cognitions and behaviors, and so, in order to compensate for the resulting degree of dissonance, I subconsciously deal with the discomfort by changing my previous beliefs. “Tanning really isn’t that bad for you, I’m sure my mom was just being over-protective when I was little.” Additionally, I add new cognitions such as, “I don’t care if I get cancer when I’m 75. Who wants to live to be that old?”

Realizing that I have held this mentality has actually sparked a greater amount of internal dissonance. Now I know that my reasoning for tanning is flawed and stupid, and since reading Chapter 6 (Aronson, Wilson, and Akert), when I go tanning, I feel twice as conflicted, and must rationalize away my dissonance with even more futile internal reasoning. The external justifications of tanning, such as the peer pressure from my friends and the need to “fit in”, are no longer as convincing because I realize that many of my friends don’t go tanning (Mallett, R., 2004, Sept. 9). As such, my dissonance level has risen once more, and I am at a crossroads. I could either change my behavior (choice 1) by discontinuing tanning; this would streamline my behavior and my beliefs. I could remain in denial about my parents’ warning and refuse to believe all of the documentation of the harmful effects of tanning (choice 2). Or, I could continue to add more cognitions (choice 3) to come up with additional reasons why I should tan, thus again altering my attitudes and/or behavior through internal justification.

The dissonance theory is an exceptional explanation for my current mentality and internal deliberations regarding tanning. My experience almost completely parallels the Gibbons, Eggleston, & Benthin smoker study (Aronson, et al, 2004). I am addicted to a destructive behavior, but unlike the smokers who became addicted due to physical dependency on nicotine, I am addicted due to psychological reasons. Perhaps it stems from the dopamine released every time I get a compliment? Thus, my experience suggests a new, testable hypothesis: Do individuals come up with more justification for a harmful behavior that involves physical addiction (such as nicotine), or more justification for a psychological addiction (such as the need for happiness as a result of praise)? If the degree of justification reported by an individual correlates more strongly with one form of harmful behavior than another, does that imply that the individual subconsciously views a particular behavior as being more self-destructive, thereby having the need to compensate for his or her higher level of dissonance? Does a person’s subconscious mind find physical or psychological addiction to be more harmful based upon the degree of justification, in response to dissonance, given for the harmful behavior?

Although there are many variables in a given situation involving dissonance, I believe that the dissonance theory applies almost fully to my personal experience. Faced with the dilemma of whether or not to continue to tan, I am torn between changing my behavior, denying what I know to be true, or creating additional cognitions to internally justify my behavior. The angel on my right shoulder tells me I shouldn’t lie down in that tanning bed, but the little devil on the other side incessantly whispers, “It’s only a tan!”


Aronson, Elliot, Timothy D. Wilson, and Robin M. Akert. Social Psychology. Upper

Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005.

Atherton, J.S. (2003) Learning and Teaching:  Cognitive dissonance [On-line] UK: Available: Accessed: September 12, 2004

Festinger, L. & Carlsmith, J.M. (1959). Cognitive Consquences of Forced Compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210.
[available at}

Harmon-Jones, Eddie & Mills, Judson (1999). Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology. APA Books. [available at]

Mallett, R. (2004, September). Lecture presented in Intro to Social Psychology. University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.

On my honor as a UVA student, I swear that this essay was composed solely of my own effort and knowledge, except where references are clearly noted.

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