Cognitive Dissonance

When you are confronted with opposing information, your brain resists.

Posted Sep 28, 2017 License
Source: License

We like having consistency in our worlds.  It makes sense - to be the best people we can be, we like having predictability.  Otherwise we would be spending our time weathering crises more than attending to our daily lives. 

However, what happens when we have two beliefs that are contradictory to each other?  How about when you get information that is totally opposite to what you have been taught? 

In order for our brains to make sense of contradictory information, we usually do one of the following:

1. Choose to ignore the new conflicting information;

2. Commit even further to our beliefs;

3. Avoid exposure to contradictory information; 

4. Project our feelings of overwhelm on to others; 

5. Absorb the contradictory information and change our existing beliefs; 

6. Accept the contradictory information as it is and accept holding two different beliefs.

The path that one chooses depends on how contradictory the information is, who provided that contradictory information, what we have been taught about the acceptability of changing values and opinions, who we associate with and how flexible they are with different points of view, and our own anxiety about change. 

The following are examples of cognitive dissonance:

A wife who has total trust in her husband is confronted with evidence of an affair.  The wife continues to interact with her husband as though this information never came to light. The wife then gets angry with the source of the information and tries to discredit the source. 

A man invests a great deal of money in stocks.  However, some of the companies he invested money in are not performing well, and he is losing money rapidly.  He prides himself on being a wise investor from a family of wise investors - so he takes no action and loses more money.

A woman campaigns for a political candidate that she believes fits her values.  She spends a significant amount of time persuading others to vote for the candidate. Over time she learns information in the news about the candidate's behavior that challenges his integrity. The woman continues to campaign for the candidate, believing that the opposition is just trying to bring her candidate down. 

Cognitive dissonance is the feeling that something is not sitting right with you. It can be a deeply internalized feeling of being uneasy with yourself or with others.  You try to stuff those unpleasant feelings down but they keep popping up.

Some people cope with having contradictory beliefs or information by blocking them out and numbing themselves with drugs and alcohol.  Some engage in activities in order to distract themselves, like watching a lot of television or going online for long periods of time. Many addictions are the result of trying to function with competing beliefs.

How do you resolve competing beliefs? Talking to a neutral third-party can help, such as in therapy.  The goal of resolving cognitive dissonance can be achieved by either accepting this opposing information and integrate it into our existing beliefs, changing our beliefs, or reducing the importance of the beliefs in our lives.  

Resolving cognitive dissonance is a challenging process - but one of great growth and learning.

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