Dr. Anjana Sen
Author, Consultant and Coach for Neuroleadership and Emotional Intelligence, Life Coach
Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we experience when we are caught between two contradictory/psychologically inconsistent thoughts or discrepancy between our beliefs and actions.
Leon Festinger is known for putting forward the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in his book in 1957.
HOW DOES COGNITIVE DISSONANCE FEEL ?
Individuals use different words to describe the feeling :
- Confusion / Inner Conflict
- Brain Fog
- Discomfort / Tension / Turmoil
- Going Crazy / off the rails
- Pressure / Suffocation
- Unable to Focus
An observer may note that the person suffering for Dissonance:
- Seems distant
Discomfort is the motivation to make things all peaceful and smooth again with a return to full productivity and creativity. Unfortunately, many of us regard discomfort as an affront to entitled state of ego. We are unwilling to tolerate discomfort for longer than a few seconds. The quickest way to deal with the discomfort is to use the Inner Critic to denounce the causative agent.
An example of the denouncing method is seen in the parable of the Fox that tried in vain to jump and eat the bunch of luscious grapes hanging on the vine, too high for it to reach. Earlier the Fox has assumed that the grapes were extremely desirable. But when it couldn’t reach them, after many attempts, it decided that the ‘Grapes are sour’; and went on its way. Assuming and denouncing are both functions of the Judgmental Critic that lives in our heads. Frequent use of this coping style makes it the go-to style for coping with disappointment, thus strengthening the function of Critic to robust levels.
There are however a bunch of different styles of coping:
Take the example of the child who has embedded the belief that ‘Liars are Bad’ and had to lie to save a friend from punishment.
In order to regain consonance the options she has :
CHANGE BELIEF : Question the existing belief and re organize it in some way:
- Everyone lies – so it can’t be that everyone is bad – hence liars are not bad
- I lied and I am not bad, then perhaps lying is bad but the person doing it is not bad – hence lying is bad, but not the person who lies.
CHANGE ACTION: Take corrective action
- I will go and own up to my lie
- I am sorry, I don’t like what I did – I will not lie again
CHANGE ACTION PERCEPTION: Trivialize, justify, create or find evidence that reduces the discomfort
- It doesn’t really matter that I lied, what difference does it make!
- My reason for lying was a noble one
Use this template to explain other incidents like giving in to temptation, gustatory, sexual, indulgence in substance abuse, cheating on diets, exercise or disobeying rules.
The oppressive Inner Critic, in its hurry to regain composure, may turn the verdict into self-flagellation and stabilize by inflicting punitive compensation for the misdemeanor, adding a new debilitating belief that sounds like “I am Bad” resulting in damage to self-esteem. The Critic being the Superego, that though housed inside an individual, talks down to the core as a finger-wagging parent would. It is willing to damage the core to restore consonance, just like a parent often crushes a child’s self-worth through hasty punitive measures to maintain a social image of perfect family
In other context the debilitating belief (I am Bad), may sound like:
a) I am a loser
b) I will never be able to lose weight
c) I am a slut
d) I am not capable of beating this habit
Changing action perception (my reason for lying was a noble one) may sound like:
a) I am allowed to cheat once in a while as long as no one gets hurt
b) I am head over heels in love so I consented to sex (I am not a slut)
c) I can make up for this indulgence by doing extra work outs
d) All the warnings about the adverse effects of recreational substances are fraudulent and motivated
Children are good at generating justification for their confusing signals. They are dependent on care givers and cannot comprehend the reason for abuse by significant elders. They cannot leave dysfunctional families and learn different coping styles. Very often the justification they feed themselves is ‘something is wrong with me’ as many abused women believe their own inadequacy brings on the abusive treatment. Sexually abused persons tend to think of themselves as ‘dirty’ and avoid talking about abuse to prevent further shame that will be inevitable when everyone hears of it.
Abused persons are known to fill their memory frame with ‘the good times’ and push away the memories of abuse. If done many times over, it becomes a skill and develops into the art of denial. These delusional relationships appear on social media posts and photos, copious amounts of public displays of affection, or showcasing of children’s achievements.
Suffering can be raised to the level of sacrifice by persons who create a belief that the abuser is worthy of their continued care and service because of the abuser’s sad and pathetic past (the back story), thus honoring themselves by wearing the badge of the silently suffering empath.
When dysfunctional methods are used to ward off cognitive dissonance, the individual moves further and further away from the truth. Their stories and narratives sound hollow and they cannot respect themselves. Without processing of dissonance to the point of uncovering the truth, even when a person changes circumstances (eg leaves a toxic relationship or family) the discomfort and confusion continues to haunt and plague.
WHAT IS THE HEALTHY WAY TO DEAL WITH COGNITIVE DISSONANCE?
Build Awareness that discomfort is not a bad thing
Discomfort is motivation to find out the truth, and must not be avoided
Thinking is a skill. If we find that the modus operandi in use, is taking us the unhealthy way (like when a bowler discovers that his favorite action is straining a ligament), then the method has to be unlearned and replaced with a healthy technique
Tolerance must be built towards a certain level of dissonance, with encouragement to chase down the truth in totality (including the inconvenient and brutal facts)
Human intelligence is immense yet finite. It is likely to be overwhelmed. That is why the brain manufactures short-cut methods like stereotyping and generating implicit bias. Humans err in allocating ‘commandment’ status to bias, holding on to it as if etched in stone. We even derive identity from these etchings and get deeply disturbed if beliefs are challenged. To protect self-image, we rush to defend the stone etchings through jumping up with denouncement, judgment, blame fixing and justification. These habits have to be broken to honor emerging reality.
Some degree of dissonance is constant as knowledge unfolds and wisdom is gained. Resist dissonance at risk of remaining ignorant.