“To Thine Own Self Be True” — William Shakespeare
To keep a harmonious state of mind, we strive for consistency in our beliefs and actions.
So, when we have two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or when we engage in a behavior that is in conflict with our beliefs, we feel a sense of uneasiness, known as cognitive dissonance.
For example, you know that eating fried food is unhealthy. However, you love french fries. You are having lunch with a friend, and she orders fries. You know fries are not good for you, but when she offers them to you, you have a few.
We face situations that can create cognitive dissonance every day. Most of the dissonance we deal with is minor, and we may not even notice it– ”I like to be prepared. It looks like it might rain. Should I take an umbrella?” Whatever your decision, it’s not likely to disrupt your mind’s balance.
However, when we gain new information that contradicts a critical belief, or we do or say something that conflicts with a belief, we experience psychological discomfort.
For example, if you believe you watch too much TV but continue to be a couch potato, you are likely to feel some degree on cognitive dissonance.
To restore balance and reduce this discomfort, we seek to alter a belief or behavior to bring our ideas and actions back into harmony. We don’t all experience cognitive dissonance to the same degree. If you are the type of person who seeks a great deal of certitude and consistency in your life, you will probably experience more cognitive dissonance than someone who is comfortable with incongruity.
Experiencing cognitive dissonance is not necessarily bad. Bringing attention to the inconsistencies in our minds can be an opportunity for growth. These opportunities can be identified when we are self-aware. Self-awareness is vital to understanding how and when cognitive dissonance may be present in your lives. If you find yourself justifying or rationalizing decisions or behaviors that you’re not entirely clear you firmly believe in, you may be trying to resolve some cognitive dissonance. For example, if your rationale for doing something or thinking something is along the lines of “That’s how my mother does it.” or “I have always thought of it that way”, then you may need to examine that belief.
Part of self-awareness pertains to examining the decisions we make in our lives. If you experience cognitive dissonance and you feel better by changing your behavior or your thinking, it’s likely the original decision you made wasn’t as right as you initially thought or no longer is the best choice.
3 Ways to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance
There are 3 ways to reduce cognitive dissonance–change your beliefs, change your behavior or rationalize your feelings and behaviors.
Changing Your Beliefs
You can choose to re-evaluate and change your beliefs. If you feel strongly about protecting the environment, for instance, but drink bottled water from disposable plastic bottles, you may look for information that promotes the use of plastic water bottles. Such as, they are recyclable and recycling is good for the environment. If you change the way you perceive protecting the environment, you can continue using plastic water bottles with less cognitive dissonance.
Changing Your Behavior
Using the same example, if you stop using plastic water bottles, you hold onto your belief and commitment and return your mind to a more harmonious state.
Rationalizing Your Beliefs and Behaviors
In a similar scenario, you bring your thoughts and actions into alignment by justifying your behavior. You may tell yourself it’s OK to use plastic water bottles; “A few more won’t make a difference.”
Self-awareness can bring attention to the inconsistencies in our minds and lead us to examine some of the decisions we have made. If you view cognitive dissonance as an opportunity for growth, it may make it easier to manage and resolve.
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