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The Cover-up: Cognitive Dissonance (Part 6)

Dr. Jim Osterhaus

Dr. Jim Osterhaus

So we now know that we are complex as people, and that within this complexity there are competing values that are constantly at war with each other. So how are we able to not only survive, but move forward as individuals? We can very well go around with our minds tied up in knots, what is now termed cognitive dissonance. It would be too confusing, and we’d never be able to make any decisions, one part of our mind pulling us in one direction, the other in another.

Our minds yearn for harmony, consistency and alignment. And yet, as we have seen, competing values lurk within each of us, threatening to throw us into disharmony and cognitive chaos.

Cognitive Dissonance Sets In
Cognitive dissonance comes about when we are holding two contradictory ideas or values simultaneously – one idea implies the opposite of another. For example, a belief in animal rights could be interpreted as inconsistent with eating meat or wearing fur. Noticing the contradiction would lead to dissonance, which could be experienced as anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, embarrassment or stress.
The values or “cognitions” in question may include values, attitudes and beliefs, and also the awareness of one’s behavior. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people can do two things to reduce dissonance:

1.    Change their values, attitudes, beliefs, and behavior.
2.     Justify or rationalize their values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

As we shall see later, changing values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors is not so easy. It’s far easier to just rationalize away discrepancies.

When people’s ideas are consistent with each other, or when the ideas in my own head are consistent, they are in a state of harmony, or consonant. If cognitions are unrelated, they are categorized as irrelevant to each other and do not lead to dissonance. It’s when the cognitions, the values, are related to one another, but out of harmony – competing – that trouble arises. On these occasions, anxiety increases, and the mind must mobilize to reconcile the discrepancy.

A powerful cause of dissonance is an idea in conflict with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as “I am a good person” or “I made the right decision.” The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization, the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one’s choices. A person who just spent too much money on a new car might decide that the new vehicle is much less likely to break down than his or her old car. This belief may or may not be true, but it would likely reduce dissonance and make the person feel better. Dissonance can also lead to confirmation bias, the denial of disconfirming evidence, and other ego defense mechanisms.

All of us strive to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in our own minds, consistent and meaningful. In order to keep our self-esteem bubbling along in high gear, our minds are forced to clear up all the discrepancies. The operation is similar to a thermostat. The thermostat in your house kicks on when the thermometer reaches a certain point. The same with our minds. When the dissonance reaches a certain point, rationalization kicks in to regulate the ‘temperature.’

Our convictions about who we are carry us through the day, and we constantly interpret the things that happen to us through the filter of those core beliefs. When they are violated, even by a good experience, it causes anxiety that must be reduced.

Dissonance and Adaptive Issues
We are obviously entering into the land of adaptive issues. An adaptive issue is any issue in which a person has different and often highly conflicted perspectives on what is worthwhile (competing values). Making progress on these issues requires new learning on the person’s part. And the new learning will include changing attitudes, beliefs and behavior. The danger, of course, is the person doesn’t learn anything new, and doesn’t change any attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors. We have two choices, change our values or rationalize away the discrepancies.

Here’s an example. A respected elder in your church comes to you with an offer to begin an intern program which will engage young college students in the work of the church. This program does not align with what church leadership has just hammered out as the direction for the church in the next five years. But you know that such an intern program would be the first in the denomination, and indeed the first in your city offered by any denomination. Such a program would win you a great deal of prestige.

Here you have one value: aligning leadership to focus as a collective on the vision of the church (which is all about the priesthood of believers that the minister thoroughly embraces). Competing with that value is the value of building your own prestige and legacy by introducing a new, innovative program.

It is those people who are the most clearly defined as people who will be able to:

  • Note the discrepancies between the competing values.
  • Navigate through the discrepancies making determinations as to which of those competing values most aligns with who that person wants to be.
  • Go about altering values which leads to altered behavior.

Having competing values is a normal and necessary thing for each of us. But it is critical that each of us understand ourselves well enough to be able these competing values as they arise in the myriad situations that confront us.


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