Our Drive for Inner Harmony
“In a way, it’s why our greatest dangers are not just from foolish people who do foolish things or evil people who do evil things, but from good people who persist in doing bad, foolish, wrong things, to preserve their belief that they are good kind and competent. See, that’s the non-obvious message of understanding how cognitive dissonance works.” — Dr. Carol Tavris, author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.
What is Cognitive Dissonance
We have an inner drive to hold all our beliefs and behaviors in harmony and to avoid disharmony (or dissonance). When inconsistency exists between beliefs and behaviors, dissonance occurs, and something must change to eliminate it and restore balance.
Cognitive dissonance is an actual case study in personal hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is a powerful motivator for rationalization (finding excuses). It answers the question, “why do we do what we do when we know what we know.” It is widespread in everyday life, and no one is immune. Let’s say I have unjustly insulted a spouse or a friend. Rather than admitting that I am at fault, I take the time to convince myself that what I did was reasonable or justifiable. By “digging in,” I will come up with a way to excuse my behavior.
Cognitive dissonance is having beliefs that oppose our behaviors. In this out-of-balance condition, something must give, and we will typically choose the path of least resistance. Most often, our beliefs are forced to make the adjustment rather than our behavior, which is more resistant to change.
Dissonance and Substance Abuse
"Cognitive dissonance can blind our views and limit perspective, it can distort our perception of the world" - Michael Keenan, High Desert Counseling
It is difficult for most rational people to make sense of the decisions made by their alcoholic or drug abuser friends and loved ones. Users can fully believe things or engage in behaviors that, to them, are rational, but to everyone else, seem totally illogical. They may drink themselves into stupors or nearly to death while so many others do all they can to turn them around.
Nearly every substance abuser faces cognitive dissonance. There is so much compelling evidence confirming why this behavior is harmful. Most everyone is aware of this evidence, but users will attempt to overcome their dissonance by either:
- Giving up their substance abuse
- Adjusting their belief in substance abuse, so it seems less dangerous to them
- Coming up with a new idea that provides an escape, such as accepting the harm substance abuse may cause others, but they are more capable of handling it, so they are not in danger.
Cognitive dissonance explains how addicts modify their reasoning processes to support the satisfaction of their impulses. The addict’s world is experienced very differently while craving than after the craving has subsided or is satisfied. If the addict is craving a drink, he may process information that favors drinking. With a focus more on accommodating belief “just one drink won’t hurt,” the addict can reduce the risk of drinking while having less difficulty not feeling bad about it. While not craving, the addict shifts the balance, motivating his behavior by seeing the beneficial consequences of quitting as the negative consequences (such as shame and guilt) dominate his decision-making.
The addict that fails to recognize the powerful shifts that cause bias to our thinking during periods of craving might mistakenly conclude that relapse was due to a lack of willpower or a failure of self-esteem. Excuses and justifications provide damage control for bad behavior. Research has shown that rationalizations and justifications can give false impressions that careful decisions have been made.
Addicts contend with cognitive dissonance every day. In the face of evidence that their lives are in shambles, they will continue to view their substance of choice as their friend. Others are to blame for their problems, so they see their drinking or drug use as just an escape from those problems. Addiction is not their enemy; it’s their only true friend.
Distorted views may look something like this:
- People who do are not abusing are boring or lack character
- Substance abuse is actually a sign of artistic depth
- People who give up addiction never really experience happiness
- Addicts who see that substance abuse is the cause of their problems may hold on to the hope that good times will one day return
- Addicts adopt a conviction that life is miserable and the only comfort they find is in alcohol or drugs
Avoiding Cognitive Dissonance
It takes a great deal of self-awareness to overcome cognitive dissonance. Reasoning, a key component of self-awareness, must be used to dispute our distorted decision-making during temptation. Respect a sudden shift in attitude; after all, it only takes a single moment of weakness in a high-risk situation to trigger a relapse.
Here are five suggestions:
- Develop a beginner’s mind when it comes time to learning or re-learning things. Put aside current beliefs and opinions to consider new information as clearly as possible.
- Learn to think critically. Don’t be afraid to question your own thoughts and opinions.
- Don’t hold onto beliefs and opinions too tightly. If better information comes along, be willing to make changes to the way you think.
- Do not associate self-worth with beliefs and opinions. Just because one viewpoint turns out to be flawed does not mean the individual is inherently flawed.
- The individual does not need to have beliefs and opinions about every issue. Sometimes the best attitude is “I don’t know”.
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Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Festinger, L. (1959). Some attitudinal consequences of forced decisions. Acta Psychologica, 15, 389-390.
Festinger, L. (Ed.). (1964). Conflict, decision, and dissonance (Vol. 3). Stanford University Press.