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How to Build a Stronger Sense of Coherence

Genuine coherence of beliefs, feelings, and behavior requires deliberate effort.

Key points

  • A sense of coherence rises from meaningful interconnections of thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and behavior.
  • The human brain craves coherence, yet it’s getting harder to achieve and maintain.
  • Cognitive biases sculpt our thinking to maintain a tenuous sense of coherence.
  • The reflective brain must deliberately weave coherence into our daily lives.

The APA Dictionary describes "coherence" as:

Meaningful interconnections between distinct psychological entities. For example, a system of independent beliefs that is logically consistent from one belief to another would be described as coherent.

Think of times when your beliefs, feelings, and behavior were contradictory, as happens to most of us now and then. Chances are, those were times when you experienced more mental confusion and/or more negative feelings. A typical response to incoherence is a narrow and rigid view of self and others.

Psychologists have explored dozens of cognitive biases in the past three decades, with various explanations for them. The most popular explanations are that biases are “flaws” in the mind that we must strive to overcome, or that they result from the natural selection of problem-solving methods developed in much simpler and less intellectually challenging times. I personally see them as adaptations that sculpt our thinking to maintain a tenuous sense of coherence.

Coherence Restraints

Despite the human longing for coherence, it’s getting harder to achieve and maintain. The restraints on coherence are daunting:

  • Too much contradictory information
  • Increasing complexity of issues
  • Negative reactivity
  • Tension between flexibility and rigidity
  • Suppression of intellectual logic
  • Suppression of emotional logic

Much has been written about information overload. When there is so much information, a chunk of it must include contradictions. Contradictions tend to increase with oversimplification. Almost everything you can relate in a sentence, headline, tweet, or soundbite is oversimplified. The dynamics of social problems are too complex for simple language to describe and express in ways that synthesize different views, rather than contradict them.

Negative reactivity makes us take a more extreme position in response to disagreement. Extreme beliefs create an illusion of coherence and increase tension between rigidity (impervious to added information) and flexibility. In extremes, coherence is temporary, requiring adrenaline or anger to maintain. Adrenaline and anger make you want to win arguments at all costs. But you can’t win because whomever you argue with becomes more extreme in reaction to your adrenaline and anger. When the adrenaline effects wear off, you feel irritable, anxious, powerless, or depressed.

The suppression of intellectual logic simply means holding contradictory beliefs, or beliefs that contradict experience. Some contradictory beliefs are inevitable because the brain cannot easily process all possible exceptions. For example, many people who strongly believe in the rule of law also think that speeding and underreporting income to IRS are okay.

Emotions have a logic of their own, to promote and protect physical and mental well-being. The most glaring example of suppressing the logic of emotions, next to suicide, is abusing loved ones.

Restoring Coherence

To reduce the flow of contradictory information, take breaks from social media, smartphone news alerts, and 24-hour opinion shows.

To combat the natural reflex of negative reactivity, keep focused on the main points of your beliefs, and don’t allow someone else’s opinions to push you to the edges of your own.

The sense of coherence is more flexible when we experience it as an organic state that is constantly growing. Learning provides mental nutrients, producing strength and wisdom if we avoid junk information that’s full of calories but no nutrition.

Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when our behavior does not align with our values or beliefs. For instance, I believe I’m a compassionate person, yet I’m irritated by my wife’s hurt. Intellectual suppression is a way to cope with the discomfort by ignoring one horn of the dissonance. For example:

I’m compassionate, not a doormat.

She’s not really hurt, she’s manipulative.

Coping with cognitive dissonance with intellectual suppression creates a network of justifications. In the example above, all I’ll think of is evidence that she’s manipulative, ignoring all the evidence that she’s sincere and loving. An example of genuine coherence is to resolve the dissonance by being more compassionate to my wife.

We’re suppressing emotional logic whenever we act against our long-term well-being by indulging self-defeating impulses. When I yell at my children, I’m suppressing my love for them and my longing for their well-being.

For lasting coherence, we must align intellectual and emotional logic, so they work together rather than in opposition to each other. For example, we must soften negative judgments about loved ones with compassion and kindness.

My partner is emotionally needy.

Note that negative judgments tend to make things worse. Regarding someone as needy will make them resentful, not more secure. Softening looks like:

My partner has been hurt. Reassurance and expressions of caring will help my partner feel more secure.

Softened judgments eliminate negative reactivity, making room for negotiation and cooperation.

To achieve coherence, we must correct emotional states that impair basic humanity, for example, racial, ethnic, gender, and other dysphoric prejudices that eventually lead to hate. Relatively few of us experience hate, but we’re all susceptible to it. An early warning sign is the urge to justify lapses in emotional logic, for example:

They don’t deserve compassion or kindness.

She had it coming.

He’s narcissistic.

She’s too sensitive.

The urge to justify is an indication of emotional incoherence.

Reflective Coherence

Because we seldomly monitor, much less evaluate our autopilot beliefs and emotions, coherence can easily evaporate in stressful times. The reflective brain must weave coherence into our daily lives. If we do so frequently, the autopilot brain will begin to do it automatically.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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