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Cognitive Dissonance

Have you ever met somebody who says one thing and does another? Have you ever spoke with somebody who seemed so firmly rooted in what they believe yet you soon find yourself shocked to discover they actually behave in quite a conflicting way to the belief they originally shared?

Maybe that’s you? Maybe you find yourself as what often may be referred to by others as indecisive, double minded or as us Irish often say “they don’t know whether they are coming or going”. In this blog we will be discussing what is know as cognitive dissonance, looking at what it is and what we can do about it therapeutically and individually outside of therapy.

As a clinician with a therapeutic orientation rooted in cognitive behavioural therapy, I spend most days of my week working with clients on their beliefs and discussing the importance of their belief systems. Cognitive dissonance in a nutshell is when a person holds two beliefs which are contradictory and the belief that the person holds fails to be congruent or in line with the actions the person had chosen to perform by free will.

With actions which are incongruent with the persons beliefs and the imbalance within the contraction in said beliefs, the person begins to feel increased discomfort and may further find themselves making changes to avoid being “inconsistent”. When working with clients I like to keep things simple and understandable, so for the purpose of this blog let me encapsulate cognitive dissonance simply before going any further. Cognitive dissonance is essentially when an individual may have attitudes, beliefs or values which are conflicting and naturally for the most part, people strive for and desire consistency in their attitudes and perceptions and so when cognitive dissonance is at play, the person experiencing this will become uneasy or feel discomfort.

As humans, we all know when we experience discomfort, we usually want it to immediately go away and so to alleviate the tension being experienced, a person may often find themselves rejecting or avoiding new information or attempting to “explain” things away as this new information can bring conflict.

In the world of social psychology, cognitive dissonance theory has its roots since 1957 and has been well esteemed in the social psychology world since. The experience of cognitive dissonance is more universal than you may imagine and I would say within a clinical context the vast majority of my clients experience cognitive dissonance to some degree at different times in their lives, however - it is not always easy to recognise and those of you who know me will know how avid an enthusiast I am about becoming more and more aware of our blind spots so that we can actually do the work to create a better life for ourselves and those around us.

That brings us to the question you’re maybe thinking at this point in reading this article - “what might be some identifiable signs that I or someone I know is experiencing cognitive dissonance?”

The following are just a few key aspects I have put together that I believe will be helpful in the identification of cognitive dissonance:

  • Attempting to bring justification or rationalisation to actions you have taken and decisions you have made.

  • A sense of discomfort before or during making decisions.

  • A common experience you may be familiar with or have heard of is FOMO (fear of missing out) - this is commonly linked to cognitive dissonance in that a person who has FOMO may go and do something even if it’s something they did not want to do.

  • An elevated sense of embarrassed, shame or guilt about something you have done in your past or something you are currently doing and further attempting to hide your actions from others.

Naturally the above are just a brief few examples of a typical presentation of cognitive dissonance and there are many more signs somebody may be cognitively dissonant. If you would like to explore these within further depth within a therapeutic setting, feel free to get in touch with us and work with one of our mental health professionals by clicking here.

Discomfort driven by inconsistency can be exhausting and the guilt associated can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression and often in extreme cases feelings of despair. For example a person may have a sincere desire to be healthy and to get in good shape, however they never eat a diet which is nutritious and good for their body and have no consistency with an exercise plan or routine. We see this so often in our clinic where people genuinely desire change but see no results due to lack of consistency. Remember and please never overlook what I’m about to say and my clients have probably heard me say this on repeat 1000 times - “Intention without action will never bring about the change you truly desire

It may be helpful for me to share with you some of what I have seen within my practice over the last number of years as a therapist in relation to cognitive dissonance in terms of what I believe to be the most common causes of this phenomena. Which are the following:

  • When we learn new information, this information can often lead to feelings of cognitive dissonance. For example a person has been drinking Coke Zero for months and then they discover some of the ingredients are perhaps not what they would like to be putting in their body and suddenly they begin to experience discomfort due to the new information and their action of drinking Coke Zero being in conflict. This is where people often disregard the new information in attempts to self soothe the discomfort.

  • Often in life in situations potentially within work, school or social settings there is a requirement to comply. The need for compliance in these settings often deemed or referred to as “forced compliance” will usually involve a person become engaged in behaviours or actions which are in opposition to their own beliefs , an example of this would be partaking in something due to peer pressure.

  • Decision making believe it or not is as common a cause for someone to seek counselling as needing help with anxiety or depression. Decision making is something we all naturally do on a daily basis within a small and large scale context. Decision making can lead to cognitive dissonance when a person is presented with two choices which are similar and struggling perhaps due to both having equal levels of appeal.

As I move towards concluding and landing the plane of the topic that is cognitive dissonance, I will leave you with what I would deem to be most significant once appropriate awareness and understanding of cognitive dissonance is built and that is discovering what you can actually do about it.

Maybe you have discovered through reading this blog that this topic is extremely prevalent in your life or the life of someone you love or care about. Naturally you may be acknowledging and making the direct link between this experience and the distress it can cause. So what can we do about it?

  • We need to change the belief. In theory this can sound easy, in application this can take time due to the enduring and rooted core nature of some of our beliefs. Cognitive restructuring is a method I introduce to all my clients and one I would highly recommend familiarising yourself with. If you need assistance in navigating this, get in touch with us.

  • Our actions must change. Our distress is caused by not being true or committed to our beliefs. By changing our actions we are moving towards removing the experience of cognitive dissonance, ultimately bringing a solution to the feelings of distress.

  • We also need to change our perception of our own actions. Sometimes we can have an all or nothing mindset. Yes, take action and make change but also make room and allowance for mistakes and not always getting it right. This will reduce and potentially dissipate the experience of cognitive dissonance.

  • Engaging with cognitive behavioural therapy can educate and equip you with everything you need to overcome the above. Cognitive behavioural therapy works to equip a client with the tools necessary to combat negative or unhelpful thoughts and behaviours in their lives. A therapist will be able to successfully help you explore and navigate the thoughts and behaviours relevant to your individual situation, creating the space for you to be able to overcome what you are facing.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If this topic struck a chord with you and you would like to learn more, myself and my team would be more than happy to help you.

I hope you are encouraged knowing that you do not have to endure this area of difficulty in your life alone and something can be done to make the change you need.

Until next time,



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