All of us experience cognitive dissonance. It’s the tension that arises when we think one way but act another way, or when we hold two opposing views at the same time. You want to lose weight, but you “cheat” and eat a chocolate doughnut. You support a right to bear arms, but you also want to see stricter gun laws because you believe they’ll lead to fewer mass shootings.
“All of us, and I mean all of us, have something we have dissonant beliefs and behaviors about,” says?Alauna Curry, MD, a trauma psychiatrist based in Houston.
Some of that dissonance can be a good thing, but too much (or too much unresolved tension) means we’re constantly at conflict with ourselves. And that tension and conflict can make us feel stressed, irritated, and unhappy if we let them fester for too long. Here’s what you need to do to go about reducing and reconciling the?cognitive dissonance?in your life.
Some Cognitive Dissonance Can Help Us Grow
Dissonance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Recognizing when your beliefs and behaviors are in conflict — or recognizing when two beliefs seem to oppose one another — can help you parse out and better understand your values and what you stand for. And ultimately, recognizing that inner conflict can help you understand yourself better and the values and beliefs that really matter to you, says?Paraskevi Noulas, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
“Working to find the?cognitive dissonance in your life?can be a positive and amazing life-altering experience,” Dr. Curry says. “It can allow you to grow in control of yourself and help you build trust in yourself and your decision-making.”
Doing some soul searching to determine the areas of your life where contradiction exists can shed light on areas you may need to work on. Maybe you always expect your friends to be prompt when you have dinner plans, but you’re usually 10 minutes late yourself. Adjusting your behavior or your expectations of your friends might help lessen conflict down the line. You can use that self-awareness to guide your future actions and decisions.
On a big-picture level, we have cognitive dissonance to thank for huge advancements within society. Dr. Noulas says that successes?in women’s rights, environmental rights, and reducing child marriages are examples of positive change that have resulted from cognitive dissonance. Those changes were due to individuals recognizing contradictions between how people viewed women, the environment, and whether or not child marriage was right and how we acted as a society (or allowed others to act). People recognized the cognitive dissonance and made necessary changes to better align society’s values with our actions.
Cognitive Dissonance Can Be Harmful, Too
Recognizing and reconciling cognitive dissonance is not always a feel-good experience. Spotting dissonance in our own lives can be painful, embarrassing, and anxiety-inducing, too. And it can be troubling and mentally exhausting to deal with, Curry says.
“The tension that gets created when you hold certain beliefs or values but act in a way that conflicts with your belief systems generates an internal discomfort that most people have to subconsciously work very hard to ignore,” Curry says.
Consider if you’re working in a job you hate, suggests?Michele Leno, PhD, a Michigan-based licensed psychologist and founder of DML Psychological Services. You have a pit in your stomach every morning, and you’re counting down the hours until it’s time to leave. And yet, you go every day. Living with that dissonance probably means you’re fairly stressed out and angry every day.
And sometimes reducing the dissonance can be as easy as reframing your thinking.
Maybe not feeling so negative about that job is a matter of recognizing its benefits, Dr. Leno says. Such as, “earning a salary and a pension is the responsible thing to do” or “I don’t respect my boss, but I’m learning a lot.”
How to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance
Since it’s unlikely that any of us can avoid cognitive dissonance completely, it’s important to spot it and resolve or reduce it. Remember: It’s the resolution of dissonance in our own lives (not letting that tension fester) that allows us to grow, Noulas says.
That said, there are some ways to resolve or at least minimize dissonance, starting with these three basic routes, according to Richard Hall, PhD, a professor of business and information technology at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
- Change your belief.?This is the simplest option, but it also is more difficult to pull off when the belief is important to you.
- Change your actions.?Whatever you did might have caused so much guilt and shame that you swear you’ll never do it again. Changing your future actions could resolve the dissonance and make you feel better about the situation.
- Change how you perceive your actions.?By altering the way you regard your actions, you can talk yourself into believing that your actions aren’t in?so?much?opposition to your beliefs. Let’s say you’re a fervent environmentalist, but you buy disposable water bottles when you travel. You might rationalize a behavior you know is not helping the environment by telling yourself it’s okay if you do it only occasionally or by considering the other actions you take as more important (such as volunteering to plant trees or using solar power for electricity in your home). Buying those water bottles and your beliefs still may contradict one another, but you no longer struggle with that opposition, so you protect yourself from the stress that conflict would otherwise cause you.
All of those routes help you get back to a mental state without conflict, where you feel like your beliefs, values, and actions are all in harmony. But each way of reducing dissonance requires that you recognize what feelings you have and do something about it, Curry adds.
It can help to view the situation you’re in from the outside, stepping back so you can see the big picture. “Give equal weight to how others experience you, and using others as a mirror, begin to identify places where your belief systems and behavior do not align,” Curry says. “Then ask yourself why you behaved as you behaved.” This can help you see how you got into the situation and hopefully you can see a way to resolve it.
Preventing Cognitive Dissonance in the First Place
You can also lessen the chances of dissonance beginning in the first place if you practice being mindful, Noulas says. So, for instance, when conflict or tension arises, take the time to pause and think through your situation and your feelings. “It’s important to be in touch with your own value system and know when your thinking is being driven by emotions,” says Corrine Leikam, PsyD,?an adjunct professor at?Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.
Not sure how to become more mindful? Noulas suggests these actions:
- Talking to a friend
- Exercising, which sometimes gives us the opportunity to be alone with our thoughts, rather than distracted by emails, text messages, TV, or chatty coworkers
- Attending a meditation or yoga class
- Engaging in therapy
- Consulting with a spiritual adviser
Resolving or reducing cognitive dissonance is not always an easy task — but it’s worth it. “It takes constant attention to work on ourselves, to continue to push to create better interactions with each other and more self-awareness,” Curry says.
She says that reaching more consistency in your thoughts and behaviors will create a world that’s less harmful, less likely to trigger negative emotions, and therefore, less problematic.