How Cognitive Dissonance Runs Your Life! (pt 2B)
“Our convictions about who we are carry us through the day, and we are constantly interpreting the things that happen to us through the filter of those core beliefs. When they are violated, even by a good experience, it causes us discomfort.” (Mistakes Were Made, pg. 31)
So with the snowball effect having us drop down the pyramid of choice and the confirmation bias keeping us willfully ignorant, what happens to our self-esteem when reality smacks you with something that’s in complete conflict with your beliefs? This is where things can really start to get interesting. Not all of us feel good about ourselves. Some of us have low self-esteem, some have higher self-esteems.
I’m not entirely sure how one’s “identity” forms, but what I do know is that it is most likely formed like any other aspect in our lives – when we were younger or our earliest experiences in a new environment (your beliefs about work were formed both by your childhood, but more significantly by your first work experiences). Then slowly and imperceptibly you start to have those beliefs become implicit theories of yourself and other people. “Implicit” because you’re unaware of the beliefs and often take them as facts.
So what happens if when you’re younger, the people you look up to tell you that you’re “good for nothing” and a “troublemaker?” Well that depends on what you do and how you view those people.
You can either have a rebellious streak and say, “F’ that, I know I’m not that,” decide to spit in the face of those opinions and make your own path. You either do that or agree with those opinions and have their words become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Say you got in trouble by fighting with “Timmy” when you were younger. As you got in trouble, your teacher or mother called you a troublemaker. After a number of instances like this, you start to look at the incidents and decide to accept their words at face value. From there on out, you start to identify yourself as a “troublemaker.” What happens if you then have a teacher that’s new to the school and thinks that, “you’re such a good little boy.”
Cognitive Dissonance ensues. You are once again (unbeknownst to you) at the top of the pyramid of choice. Do you start to act in a manner that is congruent with her opinion of you. Sadly, as confirmation bias has shown, at first, you more than likely reject that entire notion. You reject the notion and “act out” to back up your case.
This is why any change typically takes a lot of attempts before success ensues. You have to actually believe you are the change that you’re making. The change has to become integrated into your self-identity. If you believe you’re “bad” at some fundamental level, then no matter what other people say, you will always find “proof” for why you’re not good enough.
Conversely, if you believe yourself to be fundamentally good, you tend to overlook the instances where you “weren’t so nice,” as situational explanations. The author’s of Mistakes Were Made sum this up nicely when they say:
“Dissonance reduction operates like a thermostat, keeping our self-esteem bubbling along on high. That is why we are usually oblivious to the self-justifications, the little lies to ourselves that prevent us from even acknowledging that we made mistakes or foolish decisions. But dissonance theory applies to people with low self-esteem, too, to people who consider themselves to be schnooks, crooks, or incompetents. They are not surprised when their behavior confirms their negative self-image. When they make a wrongheaded prediction…they merely say, “Yup, I screwed up again; that’s just like me.”
The bottom line is that at the end of the day, we all have beliefs about ourselves that are so deeply embedded into our psyche we never even dare to challenge them. Often times we don’t challenge those core beliefs because if we did challenge the theories about ourselves, then we would be faced with a boatload of cognitive dissonance. We would have to figure out how to explain – to ourselves – that we have been living a lie. Beyond that, we would then have to live a different life based on “the truth we’ve found.”
If you want to know why people who don’t exercise, but REALLY need to, complain that “exercise just isn’t for them,” this is why. If you ever wonder why people on oxygen tanks, still smoke, this is a main reason. It’s not that they only lack will-power. It’s not that they lack the knowledge of what to do. It’s not even that they lack the social support. It’s that they lack the desire – not to stop the action – because I know smokers that hate smoking and obese people who hate being obese – but instead they lack the desire to face their mistakes.
They know they’ve caused their breathing problems by “lacking will-power” in the past. They know they might have to take responsibility for eating gluttonously while sitting 10 hours a day and doing no exercise. The pain of facing that reality is too much for them. So they don’t face that pain – they simply don’t even acknowledge it.
So sure, they may be killing themselves physically, but at least mentally, they’re “able to survive.”
On the outside looking in, you tell yourself, “I can’t believe these people – how could they do that? I would never be able to live that way.” But you’re also lying to yourself. You may not be literally killing yourself slowly, but everyday you’re blocking out the dissonant information that keeps you humming along, living a life that is a less than your ideal. Why is that? Is it because you lack “will-power” or the knowledge of how to break out of the rut of living a less than ideal life? Or is it because you lack the desire – the desire to acknowledge that it’s your life and you’re the one who’s listened to others non-sense about the best way to live your life? You’re the one who’s followed the bad advice.
Or are you the one who says, “it’s too much work” to make the changes you would have to make? If so, you’re doing the same thing they are. Under different circumstances, to be sure – but the same exact concept is in place.
Beyond the having to live up to our past, we would actually have to remember our past. This can sometimes be harder to do than you would think.
Tomorrow I’ll be back with part 2C – Our Memories, Our Creations – That talks about how we form memories and brings us back to the original relationship.