On Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance.


That word has come up a lot over the past year in different contexts and I thought I should spend some time reflecting on it.


Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist, proposed that, as human beings, we strive for psychological consistency and when we encounter a situation where we hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, opinions or values at the same time we become psychologically uncomfortable. Our level of mental discomfort can range from minor pangs to severe anguish. To relieve ourselves of that uncomfortable state, we can either change a thought or behaviour, add a new thought, or minimize/trivialize the inconsistency.


The classic example used to highlight cognitive dissonance is one around smoking. People know that smoking is bad because it could kill them and yet many continue to smoke. So, how do smokers reduce the mental discomfort from this dissonance – why am I doing something that could kill me? For instance, some smokers may ‘justify’ their habit by trivializing the health concerns (it’s not as bad as they say – my grandmother smoked all her life until she was 80) or by weighing the benefits versus the harm (smoking helps me relax and keeps my weight in check – I’m worried about obesity if I quit). As you can see, humans find ingenious ways to reduce dissonance and it’s not only smokers.


I could provide thousands of examples of dissonance from the news just in the last year but I’m going to limit it to one that I found interesting.  Paul Waldman from The Week wrote an article about how Republicans resolved their dissonance about Donald Trump. He found that although there were many evangelical republicans who believed that personal morality mattered a lot in public officials, they chose a candidate who cheated on his wives, said vulgar things about women and had a history of unethical business practices. Imagine what those supporters had to do to resolve the dissonance – they either had to accept that personal morality wasn’t as important as they deemed it to be or decide not to support him. If the outcome of the election is any indicator, they must have chosen to go with the first premise. In other words, they were willing to compromise their values that morality matters rather than the alternative. Wow, that’s quite the shift.


As a mediator, I see the discomfort of dissonance all the time. As you know, part of my practice is working with couples who are in the process of separating. I often hear from spouses that they still care deeply about their soon-to-be-ex partners and that their goal is to be as fair and generous as possible. Unfortunately, those goals have a way of shifting when couples start to dismantle the parts of their relationship that they worked so hard to achieve, especially when it comes to the finances.  Dissonance is expected in high conflict divorces but it is often present in low conflict ones as well. One example of dissonance in low conflict divorce starts with, “I care about you and the children and I want to be fair…” and somehow unravels into, “but you don’t deserve half of the investments because I worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build a nest egg while you stayed home and didn’t contribute anything financially. I shouldn’t be punished now because it didn’t work out”.  Ouch! When I hear comments like these (and I hear them often enough), I experience my own discomfort.


The person may feel justified in reducing their discomfort by letting the other person know that they are lacking in some way, i.e. “I care about you, mistakes were made but you did nothing to ameliorate your financial situation and now you expect me to compensate you for that – what’s fair about that”? How does that show ‘care’ for the other person? I’m not sure. What it does show is that people will do everything in their power to reduce dissonance in ways that are favorable to them (I am a good person because I care), that allow them to justify their mistakes (I will not let you to take advantage of me now because you didn’t do anything to help yourself back then – you chose to stay home) and maintain business as usual (let’s go our separate ways and remain friends for the sake of the children).


If I remind myself that people are doing the best that they can in a difficult situation (that it’s often the first time they are going through this process; that they are scared of the unknown; that they are unsure how they will make ends meet; that they are scared of losing all they’ve worked for; that they feel guilty about breaking up the family unit; that they are looking out for their own interests; that they are struggling to find a way forward; that they no longer want the relationship but they’ve grown accustomed to the lifestyle; that they want to be seen to be fair but not at the expense of their own welfare; that they don’t want to be worse off than the other (I could go on and on)), I can gently help them become aware of the dissonance they are experiencing and guide them to work through their discomfort in a more constructive way. When people become aware of the dissonant cognitions that are causing them distress, they can begin to put a little distance between what they are feeling and how they respond. This allows for making better conscious choices rather than letting their automatic, self-protective mechanisms kick in to resolve their discomfort. After all, to quote a colleague of mine, nobody has ever died from discomfort. We can all become aware of it, be comfortable with it, acknowledge it, learn from it and make informed decisions because of it.

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