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Cognitive Dissonance

Why Most People Don't Regret Their Tattoos

Cognitive dissonance and the "end of history" illusion.

Key points

  • We change our minds about music, films, and visual arts as frequently as every two weeks.
  • Tattoo art would be no exception.
  • Some 25 percent of Americans regret getting a tattoo.

We don't always think before we ink. But even if we do, this doesn't mean that we will always like the design we chose for our tattoo. According to a new large-scale questionnaire, more than 25 percent of Americans regret their tattoos. You may think this is a high ratio, but when we take the extremely rapid change of our aesthetic preferences into consideration, it is in fact shockingly low.

We know that aesthetic preferences change very quickly. Recent findings show that we change our minds about music, films, and visual arts as frequently as every two weeks. And there is no reason to believe that tattoo art would be an exception. Even if you found your tattoo to be the most beautiful design ever when you got it a year ago, it is extremely unlikely that you would have the same attitude now.

You may think: Well, maybe some people, but not me. And we are, indeed, very good at denying even the possibility that our aesthetic preferences will ever change. This is a special case of the End of History Illusion, the well-established psychological phenomenon that shows how we (mistakenly) consider ourselves to be a finished product: We may have changed in the past — we are different from the way we were five years ago — but that is the end of the story: From now on, we will not change. And this bias applies to aesthetic preferences as well: We may have liked different music five years ago, but we are sure that we will like exactly the same kind of music in 20 years as we do now. As End of History Illusion studies show, we are amazingly, consistently wrong about this. And so, you will, or at least should, like your tattoo less over time.

It Has to Do with Cognitive Dissonance

Then why the shockingly low ratio of 25 percent of Americans who confess to regretting their tattoo? The answer has to do with cognitive dissonance. This is the emotional reaction to a conflict between something we do and our self-image. Imagine you just took the last carton of milk in the shop, while you saw an older woman making her way toward it. Our mind is very good at getting rid of the icky feeling that such mental conflicts induce. We can make ourselves believe, for example, that she was going for the sour cream, not the milk. Or we can just think of something else, or check our phone.

Something like cognitive dissonance explains why we are reluctant to regret our tattoos. Even if your aesthetic preferences have moved on, confessing to yourself that you will now forever have a tattoo that you don't actually like would lead to cognitive dissonance. So our way of getting rid of this negative feeling is to stick to the unshakeable belief that the tattoo is amazing.

This link between resistance to tattoo regret and cognitive dissonance is obviously important for understanding our attitude toward inking. However, it is also important for understanding various aspects of cognitive dissonance. The large-scale questionnaire about American's tattoo regret has a lot of findings that would be directly relevant for cognitive dissonance research: For example, the survey found that women are significantly more likely to regret their tattoos than men. This difference is not explained by differences in our emotional life or aesthetic preferences, but by the fact that men are much more likely to do whatever they can to get rid of their cognitive dissonance. Tattoo regret, then, could serve as a quick and convenient shortcut to studying one of the most elusive mental phenomena.

Facebook image: BAZA Production/Shutterstock

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