What Is Cognitive Dissonance And How Does It Affect Us
Our inner lives don't always fit neatly together. We sometimes hold conflicting feelings – love and hate, pride, and insecurity.
We even sometimes act in conflict with our beliefs – think of what happens when smokers continue in spite of knowing that cigarettes cause cancer.
This is cognitive dissonance. But how can we better understand how it affects our ability to succeed in life?
We'll start by delving into the concept of cognitive dissonance – what it involves, and how it can become important in our lives. Crucially, we'll look at how you know if you are experiencing cognitive dissonance.
From there, we'll turn to three of the most common causes of significant cognitive dissonance, helping you to see how it might have originated in your childhood or adolescence.
Finally, we'll look more deeply at the impact cognitive dissonance has on our lives, and offer some suggestions on how you can boost your manifestation power by working on the cognitive dissonance you've experienced.
What Is Cognitive Dissonance
What is cognitive dissonance? The introduction above captures the core of it. In other words, it refers to having conflicting values, feelings, beliefs, or behaviors.
But what is this actually like to experience? It tends to make us feel very uncomfortable, sometimes even give us anxiety – almost like we don't really know or understand ourselves.
So, when we face dissonance, we have a tendency to alter one of the conflicting things so that we can get rid of that incredibly uncomfortable feeling.
We might try to repress a feeling, for example, or try to convince ourselves and others that we don't really believe two contradictory claims.
The History Of Cognitive Dissonance
You might be wondering where exactly the idea comes from, and what evidence we have to believe that it captures something real.
Cognitive dissonance theory first originated in the work of psychologist Leon Festinger, who was especially interested in researching cults.
He coined the term “cognitive dissonance” when he saw how members of one particular cult dealt with their beliefs in foretold floods actively being disproved.
Members who were less invested in the cult were likely to just revise their beliefs and admit they had been taken in by something untrue.
However, members who were committed often found ways to “get around” the truth. They would manipulate the facts to try and show they had always been right.
From Festinger's work, psychologists concluded that we all have an urge to hold onto all our feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and values in a harmonious way – and that we'll do considerable mental gymnastics to make this happen.
Examples Of Cognitive Dissonance & How Do You Know If You’ve Had It
So, how do you know whether you've experienced cognitive dissonance?
As well as the smoking case is given above, the following are common examples that you may have encountered income variation:
- Telling yourself that you'll start a new diet or exercise regime every day, in spite of historically failing to do so and knowing that you haven't changed anything.
- Drinking, smoking, or eating too much while also believing that this is bad for you. You can plug any potentially unhealthy habit here.
- Believing that someone is a very close friend and also feeling like you can't trust them with deeply personal information. This is a particularly common kind of social dissonance.
- Eating meat or wearing leather clothes while believing you're a committed animal lover, or committing to vegetarianism but not veganism in spite of citing reasons that justify both.
- Both wanting and fearing some big change in life, such as marriage, a new job, or starting a family.
Causes Of Cognitive Dissonance
Now, what actually causes cognitive and emotional dissonance? What makes it the case that it arises for us in some situations and not in others?
Conflict is a common denominator, but this conflict can come in many different forms. Here are three particularly common triggers for cognitive dissonance.
Forced To Do Something
The first kind of scenario involves “forced compliance behavior” – giving in to peer pressure.
If you're forced to do something that you secretly don't approve of or believe in, you'll experience cognitive dissonance as you've acted out of step with your values.
There will be a conflict between the fact that you didn't want to do a thing and the fact that you nevertheless did it anyway.
And since you can't change your compliance (as it's in the past), you're much more likely to try and change your beliefs.
Studies consistently show that people who experience dissonance from peer pressure more than not end up with values that reflect the thing they did under pressure.
Surprising as it sounds, we'd often really give up our conviction than deal with discomfort.
Secondly, think about just how many decisions we have to make every day All of them have the potential to cause dissonance.
For example, imagine your choice is between living in a gorgeous new place and staying where you are, near your friends and family.
No matter what, this is going to create dissonance, as you'll miss something major either way – a great career opportunity, or your loved ones. Making either decision forces you to also accept a loss.
Decision-based dissonance is the subject of a lot of psychology research, which has found that people work very hard to reduce dissonance in such cases.
The most common route is to try and exaggerate the advantages of the chosen decision and downplay the losses attached to the place not chosen.
The third common dissonance prompt is achievements that took a long time to accomplish.
The longer we invested in something, the more pressure there is on us to view it as positive and useful.
Otherwise, we face painful cognitive dissonance between our knowledge that we've “wasted” a huge chunk of time and the fact that we really do regret the effort we put in.
Mostly, then, we'll take great pains to talk ourselves into thinking we've done something hugely valuable, and that we've made the right choice.
The other option to reduce dissonance is to downplay the amount of time and effort put in.
Perhaps we shrug off that effort, saying it doesn't matter that the end project is unimpressive because we didn't use many of our resources to get it.
What Cognitive Dissonance Does To Us
So, you know what cognitive dissonance is, what kind of research prompted its discovery, and some of the major ways it might manifest in your own life.
However, what of the longer-term effects of cognitive dissonance? What does it mean for you if you spend a lot of your life engaged in this kind of inner conflict?
Sadly, beyond just making you feel uncomfortable at the moment, cognitive dissonance puts pressure on us to be dishonest with ourselves.
It tempts us to come up with comfortable stories instead of engaging with tough truths that help us grow. This can influence our relationships with others as well.
Adopting And Hiding Beliefs
As we've just noted, self-knowledge takes a hit when we deal with constant cognitive dissonance – we don't take on as many useful new beliefs as we should.
Meanwhile, the effects on interpersonal relationships are many and varied. For example, we may blame other people for things we do, don't do or believe, so that we can relieve the tension caused by cognitive dissonance.
We may also refuse to let others in, feeling shame about our inner conflict, and shutting down in this way denies us meaningful connections with people we care about.
Plus, don't forget that whenever we're dealing with other people, we're also dealing with their cognitive dissonance. This, too, can interfere with relationships, making us the target for other people's blame and shame.
One thing you can do to minimize this in your own relationship is to normalize cognitive dissonance – show that you know it happens to everyone and that it doesn't make us less valuable or loveable people.
Hopefully, people in your life will take this on board and begin to accept we all experience conflict. Sharing this conflict with others makes it more bearable, and also helps us to properly align our beliefs with reality.
Dealing With Cognitive Dissonance
As we've explored, there are ways to work with dissonance in your relationships. It can be used as a tool to help you grow closer to others and to promote mutual honestly.
But what can you do about the negative impact of dissonance on your own inner life? If you're working with the Law of Attraction to manifest your goals, you can see how cognitive dissonance might be holding you back.
After all, to manifest your dreams you need to be in vibrational alignment with the thing you desire – and cognitive dissonance means only part of you aligns with your dream.
At worst, by rationalizing your dissonance, you can end up in alignment with the wrong thing altogether.
Learning how to reduce cognitive dissonance is all about self-reflection. When you encounter one of the above triggers – peer pressure, decisions, and disappointing achievements – try writing about how you're feeling.
Include the conflicting thoughts, and notice where your mind would go to try and deal with the dissonance. Accept that right now, you feel conflicted. Look at where that conflict comes from.
And ask yourself what you might need to do differently next time to reduce future cognitive dissonance. The best way to defeat such dissonance is with constant reflection and honesty.