Sometimes I happen to fall upon a term I’ve never heard of and therefore have to Google. If the term is interesting enough my brain can get a bit obsessed thinking about it which is usually where I feel almost compelled to write a blog post about it simply to get it off my mind. That’s the simple reason behind today’s blog post. I came across the term while watching a YouTube video where two couples who were religious (Christian) talked about sexual abstinence before marriage and why it would be best for all of us. I’m not going to go into the subject matter otherwise I will go off on a tangent. The host and channel owner is a self-proclaimed atheist who pick apart their argument sentence by sentence. Nothing unusual, a lot of YouTubers do that. Suddenly one of the men in the video uses the word schizophrenic and the host corrects him by saying that the term he is probably looking for is Cognitive Dissonance. What the hell is cognitive dissonance?, I thought; hence the Google search.
WHAT IS COGNITIVE DISSOSANCE?
Can I just say that I am so glad that it has a name! It certainly explains a lot, doesn’t it? Rigid people you’ve come across online who refuses to change their beliefs even though the truth is staring them straight in the face. I have often wondered whether they were unintelligent or simply liked the thought of the world being more simple than it is. Complexity can be scary, I get that, but now that I have educated myself so many things become clear, and not less interesting I might add.
Apparently experiencing cognitive dissonance is quite unpleasant and we humans usually avoid feelings of pain or unpleasantness for the obvious reason: they are painful and unpleasant. It’s not rocket science. But what do we then when we find ourselves in this type of predicament?
RESOLVING COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
I’m quickly going to list the ways to resolve cognitive dissonance followed by an explanation. After that we will go through an example for clarification.
There are 4 ways to resolve the unpleasantness of cognitive dissonance:
- Change your cognition
- Change your behaviour
CHANGE YOUR COGNITION
It basically means: change your belief. In some cases it can be the most logical choice epsecially when faced with an indisputable truth, like the existence of gravity. Yet an awful lot of people choose to hold on to their belief and I’ll come back to why that can be.
CHANGE YOUR BEHAVIOUR
Very self-explanatory really. You notice an inconsistency and therefore you change how you do things so your action equals your cognition or belief.
Adding additional thoughts in order to rationalize the inconsistency.
Again pretty self-explanatory. You basically make it less important.
Example 1: To make it easier to digest let’s take a classic example with a smoker who knows that smoking is bad. What can that person do? The smoker can choose to change cognition and say “you know what, smoking is not that bad” and thereby resolve the dissonance. The smoker could also stick to the known fact that smoking is bad for you and change behaviour in order to restore inner peace, meaning stop smoking. If we assume that people want what is best for them it is also the most logical route to take in this specific case. Yet an alarming number of people actually choose to either rationalise their behaviour with additionals thoughts and behaviours e.g. by saying “yes, I’m a smoker but I also exercise regularly and eat healthy.” OR trivialise their actions by e.g. saying “I know smoking is bad but I don’t care” or “smoking is bad but you only live once.” On a side note: a personal favourite (if you can call it that) of mine is when people say “live hard die young”.
When you first know what to look for cognitive dissonance is actually really prevalent in our society. The example above with smokers is a classic and I frequently have patients like that, and yes they usually choose to either rationalise or trivialise their behaviour which, I might add, is quite annoying but I suppose that’s what addiction does to you. Other examples can easily be found in religion. And no I don’t have it out for religion or religious people, it just so happens that they make excellent examples of cognitive dissonance.
Example 2: A person who is Christian states that “God gave us free will” but will proceed to say that “everything is according to God’s will”. In the first statement humans have free will but in the second we don’t. As they are conflicting statements they cannot both be true so which is it? Do we have free will or not? For some wild reason I think this person exist. Another example could be:
Example 3: A person who is a self-proclaimed feminist but believe that every word in the Bible is true. The contradiction, of course, lies in the fact that the Bible has a very oppressive view on women whereas feminism does not.
Now, I’m not hating on Christianity. It just so happens that I live in a culturally Christian country so it’s the religion I know best.
Psychologist Leon Festinger explains in his book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance how other influential factors can help tip the scale for an individual. He writes:
The degree of dissonance people experience can depend on a few different factors, including how highly they value a particular belief and the degree to which their beliefs are inconsistent.
- Cognitions that are more personal, such as beliefs about the self, tend to result in greater dissonance.
- The importance of the cognitions; things that involve beliefs that are highly valued typically result in stronger dissonance.
- The ratio between dissonant (clashing) thoughts and consonant (harmonious) thoughts
- The greater the strength of the dissonance, the more pressure there is to relieve the feelings of discomfort.
Basically, the more you believe that you are right, that your values are valid and your behaviour is justified the more painful it will be to come to the conclusion that you are wrong, that your values aren’t valid and that your behaviour is not justified. It is especially an issue when we talk religion and politics. If we once again take religion I think, based on what we experience on social media and in the world in general, it’s a fair assumption to make that some highly religious people might choose a 5th solution to avoid the unpleasantness of cognitive dissonance altogether: avoidance. If you stay away from science and scientists, only surround yourself with other people who are religious, you may never be confronted with truths that will put you in an unpleasant mental state. Putting it bluntly: choosing to stay stupid. The problem I personally have with this type of behaviour is that just because you put ourself in a corner and cover your eyes – avoid the world, avoid the facts – does not mean that the world will stop being what it is. Facts are still facts no matter if you want to face them or not. The biggest problem with this type of behaviour is, in my opinion, that you stop yourself from growing, being better. Knowing yourself better and make better and more informed decisions in the future. Why anyone willingly chooses to stay put and pass up an opportunity for growth is beyond me. But that’s just my personal opinion.
WHICH DO I HAVE?
I simply cannot, and I’m sure you’d agree with me, write a blog post about cognitive dissonance without analysing my own and revealing them to you. Fair is fair, right? And the thing is that we are all cognitive dissonant, possibly multiple times a day.
Flying over to see my fiancé: I am a firm believer that we should all protect the enviornment in general, and especially if we want to stop global warmning. Then how do I justify dragging my arse onto an airborne pollution machine? Why can’t I be like the Danes who believe what I believe and refuse to fly? I use rationalisation to justify my conflicting belief and action. The fact is that I have flown exactly 2 times in my life. Once on a study trip to Florence at 17, and the second in 2010 where I went to London with my mom and aunt. So I am not really the one who’ve burdened the world with excessive CO2, right? Still, it’s a valid cognitive dissonance.
Not working out: Being a Physiotherapist comes with the knowledge of what will happen if you don’t exercise regularly. Due to my overuse injury I do now but truth be told it has been bugging me for years. It is true that I didn’t become a Physiotherapist because I loved sports and exercising; I want to help people. But when you first have that acquired knowledge you can’t not exercise and feel good about it. I could almost feel my muscles withering and my heart getting weak, and I thought about if I was as bad as the nurse who smoked like a chimney while working in the Lung department at the Hospital I worked at. I wonder what she told herself to justify her actions. I guess I could have spun a net of lies and deceit that I could believe in but I’ve never been that person so it started to nag me, and shit like that isn’t good for your mental health. But luckily that’s not the case anymore. At least now I can feel proud of myself for acting according to my knowledge of what is good for me in the long run.
I am sure that I have many more examples but I think you catch my drift. If you want to observe more cognitive dissonance may I suggest you go online and find people who are passionate about politics, very religious or from the Fat Acceptance/Body Positive community just to name a few. I’m positive there’s a lot to be observed. Oh and have fun analyzing yourself. You might find something interesting. I know I did.
A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance ( Festinger, L.)
What cognitive dissonance do you have?