How to deal with cognitive dissonance

Your worst battle is between what you know and what you feel.”

When we face situations that involve conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours or when our belief system is not consistent with our actions, we experience inner conflict of ‘to be’ or ‘not to be’. It is always difficult for us to accept two conflicting thoughts, emotions or beliefs especially if things impact us at a personal level. Cognitive dissonance uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts or beliefs in your mind at the same time. For instance, indulging in unhealthy habits in spite of knowing their negative consequences often creates cognitive dissonance. We all experience dissonance when it relates to our self-image and especially when we do something that is at odds with what we believe about ourselves. Feeling immoral, dishonest, compromised or similar personal responses reflect cognitive dissonance at work.

Dissonance can sometimes be an unavoidable consequence of making bigger decisions as well as while making simple choices. For instance, choosing caramel over chocolate and later wonder if chocolate would have been a better pick. To convince yourself you have made the right choice, you might tell yourself it doesn’t matter if the chocolate was better. In other situations, if our existing belief systems is challenged by outside circumstances or contradicts our current behaviours, it creates mental discomfort, tension and anxiety. Holding two conflicting thoughts or beliefs at the same time can create a powerful drive for change but, too much of dissonance can cause lot of distress.

Understanding cognitive dissonance

When we face differing attitudes and perceptions towards a person or situation can lead to mental distress to the extent that our thoughts and beliefs become contradictory. As a result, you feel a kind of tension between two opposing thoughts. Theory of cognitive dissonance is first developed by Leon Festinger and is centred around the idea that we as humans are always driven to reach a state of consistency when we experience conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. We have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and behaviours in harmony and avoid disharmony. In our effort to strive for internal consistency, sometimes we tend to justify or rationalise some of our irrational or faulty behaviours.

We hold many cognition (thoughts and reasoning) about the world and ourselves. When feelings and facts are in opposition , this conflict results on tension. As the experience of it leads to discomfort, we strive to lessen it or remove it in order to reach consonance with ourselves. The greater the discomfort, greater is the desire to reduce the dissonance. Thus, when inconsistent or conflicting beliefs lead to disharmony, we try to seek consistency in our attitudes and perceptions in order to minimise the feelings of discomfort either by rationalising or justifying our behaviour or beliefs. According to him, the level of dissonance we experience depends on

• The importance of the belief to us.

• How strongly the thoughts or beliefs contradict one another.

• When we find it difficult to explain or rationalise the conflict.

What causes cognitive dissonance?

We experience dissonance in all forms of persuasion to change beliefs, values, attitudes behaviours and decision-making.. Also, when we see other people behave differently to our images of them. It increases with the importance of the decision along with the difficulty of reversing it. For instance, you might experience more dissonance when making a career choice rather choosing which car to buy. When it comes to making decisions, the freedom of choice, or the need to weigh one option against other can also lead to cognitive dissonance.

Here are some more instances where we experience inner conflict.

• Behaviours that are not in congruence with your values may result in feelings of discomfort especially when the disparity involves something that is central to your sense of self. Such behaviour contradicts your beliefs about the world and the beliefs you have about yourself.

• We experience dissonance in all decisions and when making a choice, especially when faced with two similar choices or when not presented with one perfect option. For instance, while opting between two career options, one that pays you well and the other that you always wanted to work for, you might experience inner conflict of which one to choose. You know you can only accept one offer, but there are aspects of both that are appealing to you, which is why you experience dissonance.

• Forced compliance or when someone is forced to do publicly something they privately don’t want to do, inner conflict happens between their cognition(thoughts, attitudes and beliefs) and their behaviour.

• Engaging in behaviours that are opposed to your own beliefs due to external expectations like your work or social situations. Also doing things because of peer pressure or due to FOMO also creates dissonance. .

• Sometimes learning new information can lead to feelings of dissonance later. If an action has been completed and cannot be undone, you experience regret or guilt which are signs of dissonance unless you justify your behaviour or find ways to discredit new information.

Why is it bad for your wellness and productivity?

Conflicting cognition can be mentally exhausting and anxiety-inducing which most of us tend to ignore. The intensity of discomfort that comes from cognitive dissonance differs from person to person and mostly depends on their need for consistency in their lives. When a core value or long-held belief is challenged, it impacts your emotions negatively than something that doesn’t mean as much to you. For instance, you experience more guilt when you fail to keep up with your intention than breaking a resolution you weren’t that invested in the first place. Opposing beliefs, desires, impulses or feelings can lead to inner conflict in any area of our life such as personal or professional relationships, work commitments, religious beliefs, decision-making, moral standards or social ideologies.

Some people rationalise their wrong decisions /choices or immoral actions in order to avoid their inner conflict. But this further creates confusion and leads to more poor decisions/choices. Particularly in the case of deeply held values and beliefs, changing them can be difficult. In today’s work environment, there are many situations that lead to dissonance, especially when your personal values or beliefs are in conflict with work values or beliefs. This affects your productivity negatively when you are unhappy about making adjustments because your values are not in sync with work values. Too much of such unresolved tension keeps you constantly at conflict with yourself and further manifests into anxiety, sadness, regret, or stress. It can also lead to negative feelings of self-esteem and self-worth.

Why some of the dissonance is good for you.

However, besides it’s negative effects, cognitive dissonance can also be a motivator for changing your thoughts and beliefs because our desire to seek consistency. Some of it helps us grow and plays an important role in value judgments and evaluations. It can help you make a better decision between your choices if you are able to recognise the conflict and resolve it. It also leads to increased self-awareness where you can change whatever behaviours aren’t consistent with who you would like to be. Recognising when two beliefs seem to oppose one another can help you analyse and understand yourself better and the values and beliefs that really matter for you. It helps you to take control of your decision making and those areas of your life where contradiction exists like setting realistic expectations, developing self-awareness to guide your future actions and decisions.

How to deal with conflicting cognition

When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviours, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce that dissonance. The greater the strength of the dissonance, the more pressure there is to relieve the feelings of discomfort. Until you find a way to justify your actions or decisions, a calm mental state cannot be achieved, especially when these actions and decisions challenge the way you see yourself. Here are some strategies to reduce cognitive dissonance in a positive way .

Seek new information or perspective

To reduce the dissonance caused by your long-standing beliefs or learned behavioural responses, seeking new information and adding more supportive beliefs can help you outweigh the dissonant belief. But this sometimes leads to confirmation bias where you tend to seek out information that only confirms your existing beliefs or hiding your beliefs or behaviours from others to minimise the feelings of guilt. Instead be open to alternative perspectives and views even when you focus more on supportive beliefs that outweigh the dissonant belief or behaviour. Seeking out new information helps you to shift your perspectives where you will be more open to either modify your action or behaviour to find balance and to achieve consistency.

Change how you perceive your actions.

Accept that there need not be black and whites only, greys are common too. Be honest how you perceive yourself. For instance, if you are a strong believer of climate change but you carry disposable water bottles when you travel, you can reduce the dissonance so caused by perceiving your action in a positive way by telling yourself it’s okay if you do it occasionally by considering your other environment friendly actions you take other times. Even though your beliefs may still contradict one another, you can avoid stress and conflict that would otherwise arise. When you are honest with yourself, you can accept conflicting thoughts as part of yourself.

Reduce the importance of the conflicting belief

Changing the conflicting thoughts, attitudes and behaviour is one of the effective way to reduce dissonance. When faced with two conflicting beliefs, it’s helpful to examine the beliefs in question and assess whether there is too much importance being attached to either of the conflicting beliefs. For instance, if your conflicting thought is that you have to work sitting for long periods of time during the day versus healthy work habits, it is difficult to change this behaviour because of your work demands. To deal with the feeling of discomfort , you can instead find a way to rationalise your sedentary lifestyle by choosing to eat sensibly and exercising occasionally to make up for your unhealthy work habit.

Practice mindful awareness

Developing mindful awareness is another way of reducing cognitive dissonance. When inner conflict or tension arises, avoid being impulsive, pause and think through the situation and what your feelings are and embrace the anxiety and give yourself time to work through your feelings about the decision you are facing. Take a mindful approach by being aware of both positive and negative sides of the contradictions when you are stuck with your conflicting needs or beliefs. Reflect on pros and cons to make the right decision rather than rationalising it later. Be aware of your values and when your thinking is driven by your emotions. Mostly it is our thoughts and desires that often cause dissonance, developing mindful awareness will help you gain more clarity and direction.

Distinguish between intuition and fear.

Fearful choices are vague and emotionally charged whereas intuitive choices provide clarity and unemotional. Fear always becomes the underlying issue of inner conflict. What is fuelling your cognitive dissonance? Is there any underlying issue? What is causing resistance to my flow?Sometimes dissonance can also be because of negative self-belief or some unresolved past fears or regrets. To create inner harmony and consistency, it is important to attend to your fears or negative self perceptions.

Be aware of your conscious motives.

Develop insight and self-awareness to be conscious of your motives. When you find yourself excusing bad behaviours or emotionally reasoning decisions that aren’t aligned with your values, then step out and view the situation rationally. For instance, if you want to be more assertive and outspoken when it comes to communicating but are in conflict with your belief that you will not be taken seriously or you will be ridiculed, then being fully aware of your conflict can make you conscious of your motives like a part of you is motivated to feel good about yourself and you also want make your needs known and be respected. When you are fully aware of what your motives are, it automatically reduces the inner conflict of what to choose or change.

Focus on what is important

To reduce cognitive dissonance in your decision making, recognising what about each choice that is appealing to you and being honest about factors that are most important to you. To convince yourself, you have made the right decision, you can further rationalise the choice you made by claiming you never wanted the option you did not choose. You can reevaluate your attitude to support the choice you made making what you choose seem more attractive and what you didn’t choose less attractive.

Ask yourself, What is the positive and negative? What decision is in alignment with my values? What would I regret the most?

When alternatives have their good and bad points, inner conflict is going with one choice. Youvmust accept the disadvantages of the chosen one by letting go of the good points of the other.

Questions to reflect on when you are stuck with conflicting needs or beliefs:

What would be the wisest choice in the long-term? What are the pros and cons? What is the biggest priority at the moment? What do I value most? What mistaken beliefs are adding to my confusion? What misleading or limiting beliefs are causing my inner conflict? Where these beliefs are coming from? What is more sensible approach? Am I honouring my authentic self or honouring what I think I should do or be? What choices are more in alignment with my beliefs and why? Asking yourself those questions while making important decisions can help you gain clarity.

To conclude,

Reducing or resolving cognitive dissonance is not an easy task but it’s always important to be aware of it when it arises before it leads you to self-sabotaging behaviour. When you find yourself rationalising some of your bad choices /behaviours/actions to reduce the dissonance, analyse the situation and weigh up pros and cons of possible choices you can make to reach consistency in your attitudes, beliefs and behaviours so as to make good decisions and gain clarity. The faster the dissonance is dealt with, the better it is for you to be at peace with yourself, move on and be at your productive best.

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