Tuesday Psych Post – What is Cognitive Dissonance? (pt 1 of 3)
“How do we carry our sins?”
This is a question that Bruce Springsteen was trying to discover while writing The Darkness on the Edge of Town Album. It’s also a question that each of us has to face individually. You may not call your mistakes “sins,” but it’s a question we all have to live with.
How do you carry the weight of your mistakes? Do you learn from them and grow? Do you try to avoid them and allow yourself to be continually hindered by them? Or do you never even recognize that you’ve made a mistake?
The psychological theory that deals with how we handle our mistakes and how we explain those mistakes to ourselves is called Cognitive Dissonance.
Last week, I put up the post about Learned Helplessness. That psychological term is the one that I’ve had the most personal experience with. Cognitive Dissonance, on the other hand, is my favorite psychological term. It’s the theory of how us humans can justify any sort of bullshit that we want. The ability to self-justify can be so insidious that most of the time we don’t even realize that we’re justifying anything – we believe our justifications so much, they become “facts.”
My favorite mainstream book on this subject is Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. In order to do the term justice, I’m going to highlight a couple of passages from that explains what Cognitive Dissonance is:
“As fallible human beings, all of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral, or stupid…most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to say, ‘I was wrong; I made a terrible mistake.’ The higher the stakes – emotional, financial, moral – the greater the difficulty…
It goes further than that: Most people, when directly confronted with proof that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously…
We stay in an unhappy relationship or merely one that is going nowhere because, after all, we invested so much time in making it work…
Self-justification is not the same thing as lying or making excuses…there is a big difference between what a guilty man says to the public to convince them of something he knows is untrue (‘I did not have sex with that woman’; ‘I am not a crook’), and the process of persuading himself that he did a good thing. In the former situation, he is lying and knows he is lying to save his own skin. In the latter he is lying to himself. That is why self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done…
Self-justification not only minimizes our mistakes and bad decisions; it is also the reason that everyone can see a hypocrite in action except the hypocrite. It allows us to create a distinction between our moral lapses and someone else’s, and to blur the discrepancy between our actions and our moral convictions.”
In other words, this is the psychological theory about how we lie (justify) to ourselves in order to preserve our self-esteem, our morality, our self-respect.
This theory is my favorite because it shows how we have certain rules for ourselves and separate rules for other people. Most of the time, if we don’t live up to our rules for ourselves, we justify it and explain it away. So although those justifications sound good to us, they are the ones that weigh us down the most.
We get weighed down because we never see the truth and are blinded from facing reality as it is. We don’t “carry our sins” and therefore we don’t learn from them. We continue to dig the rut deeper and deeper, never realizing that we are simply justifying a mistake we made 10 years ago. That justification for for a moral lapse or mistake is still controlling your life. In fact, that justification has become so embedded into your psyche that it’s helped define “you.” That initial mistake and self-justification, after so much time, after so much public defense, makes you believe that taking certain actions are the only thing you’re capable of despite being the antithesis of what you truly desire.
Here’s a video of one of the experiments that show Cognitive Dissonance in action:
So what’s the formal definition of Cognitive Dissonance?
It’s a term that was coined by Leon Festinger, and since it’s a great book, here’s the definition from Mistakes Were Made:
“Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as ‘Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me’ and ‘I smoke two packs a day.’ Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonacne by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too) and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding ways.
“Dissonance is disquieting because to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity and, as Albert Camus observed, we humans are creatures who spend our lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd. At the heart of it, Festinger’s theory is about how people strive to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful.”
Next week, I will be back to talk about how Cognitive Dissonance plays a much larger role in most of our every day lives and how it seeps into our lives.