Avoiding the Pitfalls of Cognitive Dissonance (pt 3B)
So how does one move beyond Cognitive Dissonance?
That question is like asking, how would you get past using oxygen? The thing is, you don’t move beyond Cognitive Dissonance. You simply become aware of the situations where you’re using the theory as an excuse.
With that said, and all I’ve wrote thus far about Cognitive Dissonance, it would seem that we are trapped to live lives where we sufficiently lie to ourselves and never take responsibility for our actions.
In life though, this just isn’t true.
Here’s 4 things you can do to ensure that you’re not continually snared in the theory’s traps.
1 – Know that any time you have a choice
The first and still one of the best “Self-help” books that I ever read was Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In the book, there’s a simple concept that he explains – The choice that lies between an actual event and our reaction to that event.
It’s that area of individual choice that can give us the upper hand. Even if we start to snowball down the pyramid of choice, we once knew that the situation was morally ambiguous. And if we look at the situation from an outsider’s perspective, we can once again see the “right and wrong” in almost any situation.
But as I’ve explained, this is not always the easiest of tasks. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible though.
In many of the same ways that we justify bad decisions, we also justify good decisions. Should I donate my time and money to charity? If you choose yes, guess what happens? You start to feel really good about the choice. Should I continue to work on a marriage although sometimes my spouse is a pain in the ass? If you choose yes, guess what happens? You start to find ways to justify your spouse’s behavior in a way that makes you love him or her more.
Should I start a new job and leave this one where I’m comfortable? If you choose yes, guess what happens? You start to find reasons to like that new job.
Should I start exercising, even though in though in the past I haven’t seen many results? If you choose yes, guess what happens? I don’t know, I’m still trying to figure that one out.
No, but seriously, it comes down to how you explain exercise to yourself and why you’re doing it. If it was for the health benefits, you will start to find so many articles on the health benefits of exercise, that your confirmation bias will go through the roof.
It also depends on how high of a priority you place it in your life.
The problem with exercise, is that for most people exercise typically isn’t as a high of a priority for individuals as being a morally good person (donating to charity), your primary relationship (your marriage) and your income (your career). So the confirmation bias could go either way. In fact, with exercise, many people use confirmation bias against exercise more so than they use it to actually exercise.
With all of the previous examples though, there are two common threads.
1 – We almost always know right from wrong.
2 – We have a choice.
At any time, no matter how far down that pyramid of choice, no matter how long we’ve been holding onto limiting justifications, we can make a different choice. How many times have you seen someone try to stop smoking and then one day they either have a child or get some very serious news from their doctor and BAM!, they stop smoking. Obviously this is rare, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen.
Right and wrong. This concept has been so misapplied over the years. We say that, “It’s all relative.” And for some instances it is.
What’s right or wrong if you have to make a choice about moving across the country to follow your dream or staying put so that you don’t leave all your friends and family? What happens if one of your family member’s has cancer? What if they don’t, but you would have to leave on a whim for an opportunity that may never present itself again? You see many “ambiguous” situations aren’t so clearly defined.
The key is to remember that you can be content with your decision – you can commit to it 100% – but you don’t need to skew the reality of the decision itself. Decisions don’t have to be black or white – and in fact, rarely are.
In today’s society, with 24-hour talking pundits, where some of the most ignorant voices are the loudest and accessible, I think we’ve lost our ability to realize that most areas in life are gray. We’ve lost the appreciation of that gray area. In doing so, we’ve lost the ability to not only reason logically, but also to know the difference between a decision that is “gray” and one that is purely black and white, right and wrong.
There should be elements in your life that you won’t compromise on. Those are the things where you can use cognitive dissonance to your advantage. To be sure, you will also be using it for other smaller decisions, but at the end of the day, you can maintain your gray area.
I think it is the highest mark of an individual to be able to hold two opposing views, make a decision, be able to commit to that decision and after it’s all said and done, still hold those two opposing views.
Tomorrow, I’ll be back with the last 3 things you can do to avoid the pitfalls of cognitive dissonance and the final installment of this whole series on cognitive dissonance.