Cognitive Dissonance: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

How does cognitive dissonance work? Does it help us, or lead us into a life of hypocrisy? Can understanding the theory help us understand the bizarre behavior we see in others, as well as ourselves?

Cognitive dissonance has affected humans throughout history, but today’s political, social, and medical pressures surround us in contradictory ideas, beliefs, and ideologies begging us to act on their behalf. To satisfy the expectations of others, bolster our egos, or even do the “more right thing,” we make choices that amplify stressful feelings brought on by our cognitive dissonance.

We’ve all been guilty of believing one thing, but speaking or acting in a way that completely contradicts our supposed beliefs. In most cases, the consequences are insignificant. In some, they can be catastrophic.

In this blog post, I hope to just open your mind to what cognitive dissonance is, and how it affects each of us. With that awareness, I believe you’ll better understand others’ irrational behavior, and it’ll be easier for you to pause and think before acting irrationally yourself.

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Note: I quote the book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson multiple times in this blog post. I recommend reading the book itself for a deeper exploration of cognitive dissonance. Keep in mind that the authors seem to be more left than right politically, so reading might make you stretch your thinking a little if you’re more “right-minded” like me.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is the stressful mental state of holding two opposing attitudes, beliefs, ideas, or opinions. Often, it causes us to act in a way inconsistent with how we see ourselves or want others to see us.

For example, I’ve seen people share stories about how they lost a loved one due to the COVID vaccine, but then go on to say that they’re pro-vaccine. Their belief about the vaccines being good butts up against their knowledge that a family member died because of them.

Politics is an easy place to spot cognitive dissonance. Were I writing this during the Trump presidency, I’d no doubt have examples from him. But examples of cognitive dissonance have exploded under Biden, along with inflation.

President Biden has repeatedly warned Americans of the threat of mis-, dis-, and malformation, while lying to Americans 120 times as of January 20, 2022, just short of his first year as the President. That’s once every three days. Assuming he really believes in the importance of telling the truth, his head must be about ready to burst from the cognitive dissonance.

The  International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences adds how you feel to the definition of cognitive dissonance: inconsistency between two cognitions creates an aversive state akin to hunger or thirst that gives rise to a motivation to reduce the inconsistency.

Acting in a way inconsistent with what you believe increases stress. The higher your level of stress, or the greater the gap between how you see yourself and how you act, the more you’ll be tempted to justify your actions instead of admitting your mistakes.

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance in Action

It’s easy to think of examples of cognitive dissonance leading to social, political, relational, or financial problems. But, sometimes we feel its sting when we do the right thing as well. The following are five examples of how cognitive dissonance can affect us. Two are my own. I hope they help you see it in your life as well. You can’t navigate its effects if you don’t know it’s there.

Smoking on the Golf Course

I was a fat kid for much of my childhood. At least, I was chubby by the standards of the 1980’s. My nickname was CP, short for Chubby & Porky. That led me to an early interest in health and fitness. By the time I was 17, I’d shed the extra weight. Being that I was already becoming a fitness fanatic, if you would have asked me about smoking, I would have told you it was bad news.

However, as a high school senior, I played golf for my high school team. When we played practice rounds in Ely, I’d light up a cigarette once I got to the fifth hole, out of eyesight from our coach. I knew smoking was bad for me, and my parents wouldn’t be thrilled if they knew I did it, but I also thought it was cool. I probably justified it more because others smoked with me.

I believed smoking was bad for me and I believed smoking was cool. Two contradictory beliefs. When I smoked, I felt the internal struggle of choosing to do something I knew went against my stronger belief.

Firing the best personal trainer I ever hired.

I personally managed dozens, if not hundreds of personal trainers during my career as a personal training manager. Darnell was one of the best personal trainers I worked with. He was also just one of three I had to fire.

Darnell was extremely knowledgeable, looked the part, and was a really likable guy. He made one mistake, though. He had a client pay him “under the table.” Instead of having his client pay Life Time, he had the client pay him directly.

Did Darnell set out to steal money from Life Time? Knowing Darnell, I don’t think so. It started out with a single client. He might have thought, “It’s just once. It won’t happen again, and besides, Life Time makes tons of money.” The second time, he might have thought, “I deserve this. After all, these clients wouldn’t be training if it wasn’t for me.” Little by little, the justifications got stronger as a way to ease his cognitive dissonance.

It took me a while to catch on. Month by month, the revenue he brought into Life Time slowly went down, yet he was as busy as ever. I could see from his numbers that he was taking money under the table, but I really liked him as a person and didn’t want to lose him as a trainer, but I also knew that my responsibility was to Life Time and the rest of my trainers, which meant letting him go. The longer it went on, the more stress I felt from carrying these two contradictory beliefs.

Eventually, I came to the realization that by not letting Darnell go, I was treating the rest of the personal trainers unfairly. After all, they were playing by the rules and he wasn’t. I had him come to my office, and with tear-filled eyes, I let him go. It was one of just a couple of times I cried in my office.

The other time was when I met with Jeff Zwiefel, the COO, to let him know I was resigning in June of 2020, not because I disliked Life Time, but because I wanted the freedom to speak the truth about my beliefs, which I did a couple of days later with my blog post Unmasked. Unmuzzled. Unvaccinated. Unafraid.

The darkest and most demonic book she ever read.

One of Young Living Essential Oils‘ long-time distributors, and also a friend of the CEO, wrote a book about conscious language and how she uses it in business. She sent the book out, unrequested, to most of the higher-level brand partners in Young Living. We’ve received numerous other books over the years from others, so it wasn’t a big deal to us. It was to one woman in particular, someone who’d left Young Living to join a different company about six months ago.

She received the book and shared an Instagram story that went more than a little off the rails. It was a good example of a psychological phenomenon called naive realism.

Along with the confirmation bias, the brain comes packaged with other self-serving habits that allow us to justify our own perceptions and beliefs as being accurate, realistic, and unbiased. Social psychologist Lee Ross named this phenomenon “naive realism,” the inescapable conviction that we perceive objects and events clearly, “as they really are.” We assume that other reasonable people see things the same way we do. If they disagree with us, they obviously aren’t seeing clearly. Naive realism creates a logical labyrinth because it presupposes two things: One, people who are open-minded and fair ought to agree with a reasonable opinion, and, two, any opinion I hold must be reasonable; if it weren’t, I wouldn’t hold it. Therefore, if I can just get my opponents to sit down here and listen to me explain how things really are, they will agree with me. And if they don’t, it must be because they are biased.

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Just past her six-month noncompete, she was free to share whatever she wanted with her audience, and posted what quickly became a viral story about this book. In the story, she wrote, “It is THE darkest and most demonic book I have ever read.” That’s a pretty strong statement! Something sure to get some eyeballs and social media shares. Not surprisingly, her story quickly went viral.

The woman picked put passages from the book that contradicted Biblical doctrine. Stopping there, it would have been a book review, which many would probably agree with. Unfortunately, she then suggested the book was to be promoted by Young Living and embedded in everything the company did, and that any brand partners who failed to denounce the book would be prioritizing their income over people’s eternal salvation. Whew!

Those are some big assumptions. And that’s all they were.

I do not know the ex-distributor’s whole history, nor why she’d attack an entire organization and other people she doesn’t know, instead of addressing the one issue she could with objectivity: the book.

I, like almost anyone else who came across it, was only able to hear her words and see her actions.

The story she posted could be summed up as “I’m a Jesus-loving Christian who believes ‘this book’ contradicts Biblical doctrine, and because a long-time brand partner wrote it, the whole company is involved and anyone who doesn’t denounce it is putting their income over other people’s salvations.

Some might find it ironic that she denounced one organization for not standing behind her Christian values and joining another one where the CEO is Muslim (not suggesting that would be an issue for me, but just pointing out how it should be for her if she’s such a strong Christian evangelist).

Tavris and Aronson explain:

The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on its owner the comforting delusion that he or she does not have any. In a sense, dissonance theory is a theory of blind spots—of how and why people unintentionally blind themselves so that they fail to notice vital events and information that might make them question their behavior or their convictions.

The interesting thing in this situation is that if the focus would have been on the book alone, I’d probably agree with some of the sentiments. So would many other Christians.

The problem is, to bolster the outrage, she drug the whole company and its brand partners into it, creating unjustifiable collateral damage.

And even worse than that, many who watched the whole thing play out didn’t pause and think before acting. They took all her words as truth (after all, she loves Jesus so she must be only sharing the truth), and shared the story, condemned the company, and stopped using products they love.

They got swept up, into a cancel culture mob. Not unlike the cancel culture mob that’s going after Joe Rogan.

Read also: Have you lost your mind?

Joe’s sharing misinformation. And he’s racist. And…

Joe Rogan is a threat to mainstream media, both in terms of his credibility and the size of his audience. After interviewing some guests who brought facts, science, and data to the discussion, and dismantled many of the mainstream media narratives about COVID-19, his show became a cancel culture target.

Here’s a guy who brought on guests with proof that the mainstream media narratives about COVID-19 were flawed, but at the same time, many of his audience also believe that mainstream media is a source of truth. What a way to create cognitive dissonance chaos.

You got a sense that things were getting tense after he hosted Dr. Peter McCullough (episode #1747), the world’s most published medical scholar. Two weeks later, he interviewed Dr. Robert Malone (episode #1757), who was partially responsible for inventing mRNA vaccine technology.

Shortly thereafter, efforts came from all sides to censor or even cancel The Joe Rogan Experience for sharing “misinformation.”

The White House even wants Spotify to do more to censor the likes of Rogan for misinformation. Remember, though, this is coming from the administration of a president who lied to Americans 120 times in his first year. That’s once every three days.

But Rogan is well-liked, well-informed, and has consistently had guests with views on both sides of an argument. He did have Sanjay Gupta on long before the other two doctors, though Joe Rogan seemed to know more than Gupta about COVID-19.

When the mob realized that no level of name calling or condemnation would result in Joe Rogan’s cancellation for sharing these doctors’ views, they tried a different tactic.

A group complied snippets of Rogan using the “n” word, out of context, and ran them all together to create a sick and twisted version of who Joe is. They couldn’t get him removed for sharing true information about COVID-19, so their next attempt was to get him removed as part of the systemic racism narrative. If that doesn’t work, the next attack will likely be even more extreme.

Once the attacks begin, they’ll rarely subside. The more extreme someone acts in cognitive dissonance, the more extreme they’ll act to keep it going.

Tavris and Aronson explain it this way:

When you do anything that harms others—get them in trouble, verbally abuse them, or punch them out—a powerful new factor comes into play: the need to justify what you did. Take a boy who goes along with a group of his fellow seventh graders who are taunting and bullying a weaker kid who did them no harm. The boy likes being part of the gang but his heart really isn’t in the bullying. Later, he feels some dissonance about what he did. “How can a decent kid like me,” he wonders, “have done such a cruel thing to a nice, innocent little kid like him?” To reduce dissonance, he will try to convince himself that the victim is neither nice nor innocent: “He is such a nerd and a crybaby. Besides, he would have done the same to me if he had the chance.” Once the boy starts down the path of blaming the victim, he becomes more likely to beat up on the victim with even greater ferocity the next chance he gets. Justifying his first hurtful act sets the stage for more aggression.

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Not surprisingly, the aggression grows stronger and faster in groups than it does in individuals. Who knows what’s next for Joe Rogan?

The Expert Anthony Fauci 

Over the past two years, no individual has been glorified for his “expertise” more than Anthony Fauci. If you believe he has the people’s best interest in mind, I strongly recommend reading The Real Anthony Fauci. It should wake you up real quick.

Mainstream media has helped turn Dr. Fauci into a cognitive dissonance monster.

Experts can sound pretty impressive, especially when they bolster their claims by citing their years of training and experience in a field…But when an expert is wrong, the centerpiece of his or her professional identity is threatened. Therefore, dissonance theory predicts that the more self-confident and famous experts are, the less likely they will be to admit mistakes.

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Dr. Fauci contradicted himself too many times to count, but always seems able to justify his contradictions. His fallback is often “the science has changed.” But has it? Or, did he make recommendations based on desired narratives to suit himself and those he’s partnered with?

The masks didn’t work, and then they did. Kids were safe, and then needed to get vaccinated. And boosted.

The vaccines would stop infections, or hospitalizations, or the spread of COVID-19, and were totally safe. No, no, no and no. But we need everyone vaccinated because it’ll end the pandemic. As we’ve seen, he cannot be questioned because “he is science” and “the science changed.” 

He’s smooth with self-justification. So smooth that many don’t even see it. But then again, he’s been practicing since his early days of working on the AIDS epidemic.

If it’s true that the more self-confident and famous experts are, the less likely they will be to admit mistakes, I expect Dr. Fauci will go to his grave with his lies and mistakes, never fessing up to a single one of them unless he can do so by deflecting responsibility.

Not to single him out, though. You can see the same pattern of taking credit for successes and blaming others for mistakes from our Presidents as well, both Trump and Biden.

Read also: Science Fiction and COVID: They’re Lying To You For Their Own Good.

Thinking for Ourselves

We learned as kids that what’s on TV isn’t real. Many of us forget that when it comes to social media. We all (myself included) get swooped up by others’ emotional outbursts, taking their emotional opinions as truth.

If you watch mainstream media, you can get filled with fear about a cold-like virus, an abstract concept like climate change, or the risks associated with misusing someone’s preferred pronouns.

If we turn off all the chatter from people telling us what to think, and sit in silence for a few minutes, we start to think for ourselves. We can start to see through the hypocrisy all around us, intent on taking us down the wrong path.

Seeing it in others is easy. When we sit a little longer, we see the hypocrisy in ourselves as well.

We all hold onto false beliefs. Much of what each of us believes is wrong. The more emotional we are when voicing our opinion, the more likely it is that we’ll be wrong, too.

The best thing we can do is to get quiet and think for ourselves. The longer we wait to take action, the more likely it is that we’ll set emotions aside and think with some logic.

Mindful awareness of how dissonance operates is therefore the first step toward controlling its effects. But two psychological impediments remain. One is the belief that mistakes are evidence of incompetence and stupidity; the other is the belief that our personality traits, including self-esteem, are embedded and unchangeable. People who hold both of these ideas are often afraid to admit error because they take it as evidence that they are blithering idiots; they cannot separate the mistake from their identity and self-esteem. Although most Americans know they are supposed to say “We learn from our mistakes,” deep down they don’t believe it for a minute. They think that making mistakes means they are stupid. That belief is precisely what keeps them from learning from their mistakes.

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

They go on to say:

All of us will have hard decisions to make at times in our lives; not all of them will be right, and not all of them will be wise. Some are complicated, with consequences we could never have foreseen. If we can resist the temptation to justify our actions in a rigid, overconfident way, we can leave the door open to empathy and an appreciation of life’s complexity, including the possibility that what was right for us might not have been right for others.

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

The reality is, I act in ways inconsistent with my beliefs. I believe things that are flat-out wrong. I often make minor mistakes and sometimes make big blunders, and as difficult as it may be to do, I strive to admit those mistakes when I become aware of them. 

When I feel the twinge of cognitive dissonance based on how I spoke or acted, I do my best to acknowledge the inconsistency between what I believe and what I do. At least, that’s what I strive to do. Then again, someone I know might read this last paragraph and think I’m a hypocrite because of something I did or said in the past. If so, I hope they’ll let me know, and if it’s true, I hope I’ll be willing to admit it.

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