Cognitive Dissonance

cognitive dissonance hat      I just made up a new answer for people who take me to task for my sometimes-inconsistent opinions: “I have a love/hate relationship with cognitive dissonance.”

Or as the saying goes, “Cognitive dissonance: you can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it.”

The notion of cognitive dissonance is a handy one, because it explains a lot. (It is also the only concept I recall from my Introduction to Psychology class all those years ago.) The phrase “cognitive dissonance” refers to the mental tension one experiences when one attempts to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s head simultaneously. And, let’s face it, in our society there are plenty of times when we cling tenaciously to convictions that clearly contradict each other. For example…

  • “It’s all in God’s hands” versus “It’s all up to me.”
  • “It’s important to be humble and self-effacing” versus “It’s important to assert oneself and to get ahead.”
  • “I long for the simpler life and will give up material success in order to achieve it” versus “I long for material success and will embrace busyness and complexity in order to achieve it.”
  • “I have 400 friends on Facebook” versus “I have no close relationships.”
  • “It’s good for my kids to relax and play” versus “It’s good for my kids to be involved in lots of extra-curricular activities.”
  • “I am not defined by what I do” versus “I’d be lost if I ever got laid off.”

Each one of us has our own cognitive dissonance list. Right now, for example, I’m in the middle of planning for an important fundraising event at work. As a person of faith I believe fully that God will move in the details to make the outcome exactly what it ought be. But as a relatively neurotic and overly self-reliant person I also believe fully that the success or failure of the event rests 100% on my shoulders and if I drop the ball the whole endeavor will collapse in a heap. No pressure, of course. In reality, both statements have elements of truth: I need to work hard, and I also need to pray hard. That second part is the part I too often overlook.

If you find yourself stressing out over some of these kinds of thoughts from time to time, it can be useful to stop and realize that cognitive dissonance is a very real psychological by-product of a very real internal conflict. Maybe the stress you’re experiencing stems from trying to balance two ideas in your mind that are in conflict with one another. You may not be able to resolve the conflict — that’s why it creates dissonance, after all — but at least understanding why the conflict exists might help you gain some clarity. News flash for each of us: we’re all more or less normal.

Or are we? “I’m normal” versus “I’m abnormal.” Hmmm…there’s a concept sure to create plenty of cognitive dissonance in the best of us!

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