I’m perpetually fascinated by the human mind and its capacity for self-deception.
What do I mean?
Well, as an example, when I say “I’m going to start working out on Monday” I actually believe it.
Despite the numerous instances in my past where Monday has never arrived.
Even though, as I write this, another Monday has been and gone and I have yet to do anything remotely resembling exercise.
Well, I wore a tracksuit this morning for the school run but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count!
Or that friend (and we’ve all had, or even been, that friend) who swears blind that they’ll not be getting back together with their on-again, off-again partner this time. And means it.
And before you know it, their IG posts are all #couplegoals.
How and why are we able to completely ignore all evidence, rationale, and experience to the contrary and staunchly stick with a clearly illogical point of view?
It would seem one view is that it hinges on something called Cognitive Dissonance Theory which was first investigated by a psychologist named Leon Festinger.
Disclaimer: I am not a professional psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychotherapist.Any views I hold and share are based on my understanding of the things that I read and learn to help both myself and my clients grow.
So, now that’s out of the way!
Cognitive Dissonance Theory
If you’ve read any of my work, you’ll know I love a good definition! I like to make sure we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.
Dissonance is an inconsistency, lack of harmony, or lack of agreement between two or more things.
Cognitive dissonance is basically when two or more of your thoughts, ideas, or principles don’t agree with each other causing you to feel uneasy.
When that happens, we try to relieve the conflict and discomfort by aligning the differing thoughts, etc. Sometimes, in order to do that we have to deceive ourselves about one of the things for it all to make sense.
Take the example of me and my (non-existent) workout regimen.
One thought I have (and this is probably at a subconscious level) is that to be a “good” person, I should be fit and healthy.
Obviously, therefore, I want to do what it takes to be a “good” person namely eat well and exercise regularly.
The other thought I have is that I really don’t enjoy exercise all that much and will pretty much do what I can to avoid it. If I follow that train of thought, then I won’t exercise and therefore can’t be a “good” person as described above.
Because by any other measure, I consider myself a good person but this parameter tells me that I’m not.
I don’t like that parameter and what it says about me, so I change the parameter.
I create the deception that I am a person who exercises, albeit infrequently. I plan it and schedule it, have the right clothes for it and so I’m most of the way there. It’s just that life gets in the way and prevents me from executing my good intentions.
With that self-deception in place, I can continue merrily on my way believing that I’m now a “good” person as per my original thought, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
It’s fantastic, isn’t it?
It helps resolve our internal anxiety and stops us from expending energy on second-guessing the choices we might make.
But it begs the question — why not just do the thing instead of fabricating this whole mental framework to validate its avoidance?
Turns out, there are three main ways in which we can reduce or eliminate cognitive dissonance.
Change what we believe (or a behaviour if one of the things is behaviour based)
Reduce the importance of our beliefs or
Add new beliefs
You guessed it, reducing the importance of our beliefs or adding new ones is often easier than changing what we already believe, resulting in that self-deception.
Reducing importance can look like “well, life’s short, may as well live for today”.
Adding a new belief could be “there’s no conclusive evidence that X food causes Y, besides, there will always be new research!”
Raise your hand if that sounds familiar.
Yeah, me too.
Changing our beliefs and our behaviour is the hardest thing to do. So naturally, we try to avoid it all costs.
But if we’re serious about ridding ourselves of cognitive dissonance, it’s the route most likely to result in lasting change.
That’s where having a support system can come in handy.
Lasting change is more likely to occur with repetition and over time. Having someone hold you accountable for that will yield better results than self-help.
I touched on the science of change in this article if you’d like to know more.
So tell me, are there places in your life where you’ve experienced or continue to experience cognitive dissonance?
I’d love to hear from you.