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Cognitive Dissonance and Addiction

Why the pursuit of consistency makes us irrational.

In the Aesop’s fable, the fox tries hard to get his hands on a tasty vine of grapes, but fails in all of his attempts to acquire the grapes; at which point the fox convinces himself that he really didn’t want those grapes that badly after all. Similarly, when we lose in a contest, we come to desire the prize less because we view it as less valuable. The point is that we try to ensure that the picture we have of ourselves is coherent, which is a means for maintaining a positive self-image (seeing ourselves as rational and consistent).

The great social psychologist Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance results from a tension between a desire and a belief. This inconsistency produces discomfort and anxiety. The discomfort (dissonance) motivates individuals to decrease the inconsistency between one’s wishes and beliefs. People will go to great lengths to eliminate or reduce this discomfort. After all, behaving against one’s wishes and intentions violates a fundamental human need to see oneself as a rational and consistent person.

Cognitive dissonance is a case of detecting your own hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is a powerful motivation for finding justifications (excuses) for our action. For example, if I have unjustly insulted another person, I may be unable to admit to myself that I am at fault. Instead, I will convince myself that what I did was justifiable or at least excuses my behavior. Often rapists will say, “She dressed provocatively.”

The theory of dissonance reduction predicts if our beliefs are incompatible with our behavior, something has to change: either our beliefs or our behavior. In general, we will choose the path of least resistance. That is, the adjustment will favor the one that is most resistant to change. Often it is our beliefs that get adjusted, rather than our desire.

A smoker, for example, who knows that smoking causes cancer, experiences cognitive dissonance if she continues to smoke. She is knowingly harming herself. There are two options to reduce the discomfort. The first is to quit smoking (reduce desire). But that is difficult, so most smokers convince themselves that the links between smoking and lung cancer are not quite as strong as doctors claim (modify belief, or avoid the information). In the context of dieting, a person who intends to lose weight has dissonance because of his conflicting strong desires for fattening foods and to lose weight. After an overindulging evening in a special event, he may experience an intense feeling of discomfort (regret and guilt) for his behavior. He may reduce the discomfort by either downplaying the importance of weight loss, or engage in a rigorous exercise the day after. In both examples, the reactions show that they are justifying their irrational behavior.

Cognitive dissonance suggests that addicts may modify their reasoning processes to support the satisfaction of impulses. For an addict, while craving, the world is experienced in a very different way compared to the way when the craving is satisfied. Craving distorts addicts’ ability to process information in a manner that promotes drug use. For example, while craving, the decision to smoke just one cigarette is viewed in a more favorable light. The smoker may focus on more accommodating belief (e.g., “smoking cannot be very dangerous”). By reducing the risk of smoking, one will have less difficulty in smoking and not feel bad about it. While smokers are not craving, the shift in balance between benefit and negative consequences will motivate smokers to quit. That is, now the negatives (including guilt and shame) dominate the decision, and the lapsed smoker wonders how such a mistake was made. Without recognizing the powerful shifts in thinking while craving, the smoker may conclude that the relapse reflects a lack of willpower or self-confidence.

The take-home lesson is that our reasoning is biased by our desires and motivations. To damage control, we come up with excuses to justify our desired choices. Research shows that justifications give people the impression that they made a careful decision. How to remedy this bias? In the face of temptation (problematic desires), we need to dispute rationally our distorted reasoning and the judgments that follow. The importance of a sudden shift in attitudes needs to be appreciated. After all, it takes only a single moment of weakness during a high-risk situation for a recovering addict to reconsider drug use and relapse. Friends and relatives who learn that an addict holds a negative view of drug (or behavior) and is motivated to quit may be surprised to learn of a sudden shift in preference for the drug.

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