This blog post is focused on how we rather easily can detect or identify a problem with our beliefs and behavior. If we listen to the bell — the “cognitive dissonance” — we may get clues on how we can proceed, adjusting our beliefs and behavior to increase our happiness and well-being.
KEYWORDS: beliefs, cognitive dissonance, emotional discomfort, emotions, feelings, happiness, negativity-positivity spectrum, philosophy, psychology, thoughts, well-being.
This blog post is about a psychological phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance” and its relation to our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. I will argue in this post that by honestly observing this phenomenon, one has a very good chance to make some adjustments to one’s attitude, and thereby achieve a better emotional state of affairs: more happiness, more well-being, etc.
Thoughts and Beliefs: A Potential Obstacle
When we are looking at achieving new levels of happiness, well-being, abundance, etc., we must, I propose, take a serious look at our own thoughts and beliefs. For they are many times preventing us from “advancing” in our emotional status.
What I am saying is this. Let us suppose that we are talking about a person who is rather negative. Maybe she is a N2 ( a “negative”, level 2), which is the “mid” category among the negatives, according to my negativity-positivity spectrum.
If we assume that she is, for some reason, interested in “moving up the scale” and becoming a more positive person (maybe she wants to be an N1, or even a P1), she would be looking at modifying many of those thoughts and beliefs that she currently holds. (Or if not modifying them, somehow or other disabling them, or minimizing them, by some other method.)
Now, the problem with a P2 is that she is, in general, rather “stiff” and “rigid” in terms of changing her beliefs. Since she has a rather “solid” negativity infused in her, it may be rather difficult to motivate her doing any changes. So in this respect, for example, a person who is an N1, who is less negative and more positive, would be easier to motivate.
But for the sake of this article, we are just going to assume that the N2 person is willing, on some level, to change toward the positive. So the “job” for her, in this little exercise, is to try to change some of her beliefs, so that she will achieve a more comfortable emotional state of being, and thus become happier and more satisfied, in general.
Which Beliefs to Change?
One very important question is this: Which beliefs should she focus on? I mean, we all walk around with thousands, if not millions, of beliefs running around in our little heads. So how to choose which beliefs to start with?
There are many different ways to determine which beliefs we are going to focus on first. But since today’s blog post is about “cognitive dissonance”, I will here only talk about that method, and leave the other methods for some other time.
So we might ask now: What is “cognitive dissonance”? And what does it have to do with identifying beliefs, or changing beliefs?
As I have said above, “cognitive dissonance” is a psychological phenomenon. It refers to an uncomfortable or disturbing feeling, or emotion, produced when two thoughts or beliefs are not “matching”. In other words, the two beliefs are “clashing”, and are thus producing an uneasy feeling for the person who is having them.
One example may be the following. Assume Anna is a vegetarian, and therefore thinks, correctly, that “I am a vegetarian, so I eat vegetables and milk products”.
But since Anna is a very research-intense person, she has recently found out, after reading some scholarly publications, that milk products in general may not be very healthy to consume. So she now believes, after seriously having studied the relevant reports, that milk products are unhealthy to consume.
The situation then is as follows. At this stage, Anna believes (as before) that “I am a vegetarian”. But she now also believes another thing, which she previously did not believe, namely that “Milk products are not healthy to consume [for me]”.
This situation, then, creates a discord, a dis-harmony: the two ideas do not match. For how can Anna be a vegetarian (eating milk products), if she suddenly now must skip consuming milk products”?
One simple (and rather common) way to try to solve this cognitive dissonance would be to add a third thought or belief, such as: “I am not eating milk products so often, anyway”, or, perhaps, “but maybe the scientists didn’t actually design their experiment in the right way?”
So by adding a simple third thought or belief, it may be possible for her to rationalize away some of the discord. But the problem, of course, is that even if she can do this “magic trick” to subdue some of her bad feelings, it seems reasonable to say that Anna still knows, by her remaining uneasy feeling (although perhaps slightly less intense than before), that she still has some “work” to do. She still knows that she, somehow, has to “harmonize” all these beliefs in order to fully do away with her cognitive dissonance.
Thus, if Anna is of an honest bent and dedicated to self-mastery, she must proceed, in order for her emotions to relax. She needs a real resolution to arrive at a more happy state. If she continues to use these three beliefs as they are, she will continue feeling unhappy about the whole situation.
Beliefs and Behavior
An important point here is that we are not just talking about “harmonizing beliefs”. I mean, if it were just about beliefs that had nothing to do with her daily life, then the discomfort may have been on a lower level, or maybe even non-existing.
So, for example, for a Westerner living in Europe or North America, the thoughts “All elephants have tusks” and the thought “Some Indian elephants have no tusks” apparently are incompatible. But since elephants, for most people in Western countries, are not very frequently appearing “live” in Western people’s daily lives, such thoughts, or beliefs, may not cause very much emotional discomfort.
So what I am saying here is that when beliefs are intimately connected to one’s (daily) behavior, that is when the “cognitive dissonance” is felt the most. And that is also when the need for a resolution is the greatest.
This is of course not to say that there are some cases of “cognitive dissonance” that typically everyone should simply ignore. No, I do believe that “cognitive dissonance” may be good for some people to address, even though it may not be related to any “immediate behavior”.
But for most people, I think, it is the dis-harmony related to behavior that is the key. We must act in harmony with our beliefs. If we don’t, then we won’t feel very good.
So let’s go back to Anna. She has “taken the call” and accepted the idea that her inner emotional state must be “beautified” or “harmonized” into something that feels better. So what does she do, after rejecting alternative one?
She tries alternative number two: To “attack” her new belief, that “Milk products are not healthy to consume [for me]”. So she spends another two weeks researching, but she cannot find any credible evidence to really undo her previous observation. Thus, she “surrenders”, and accepts the belief that “Milk products are not healthy to consume [for me]”.
This then has the consequence that there is no more scope for any “I am not eating milk products so often, anyway”, or “but maybe the scientists didn’t actually design their experiment in the right way?” Those are, from now on, discarded.
So, having once decided that she accepts the statement “Milk products are not healthy to consume [for me]” as true, she cannot act otherwise, without feelings of “inconsistency” or “guilt” or similar. Her behavior must match what she believes, otherwise she will not feel good.
And this has ramifications, then, for her “original” belief (“I am a vegetarian, so I eat vegetables and milk products”). Since now “Milk products are not healthy” is carved in stone, Anna must adjust her “vegetarian” status. Since no milk products will be on her menu, she will have to address herself as a vegan: “I am a vegan.”
The third alternative would be to reject the previous belief that “Milk products are not healthy to consume [for me]”.
So if she, in another scenario, actually finds credible scientific evidence that not only nullifies the previous reports, but also establishes, even more conclusively, that milk products instead are good for us, she may simply let go of her “not healthy” belief.
That way, she can quickly, and without discord, return to her original belief, namely that “I am a vegetarian”, without having to switch to being a vegan.
It matters what we believe. And when we experience “cognitive dissonance” we actually feel it.
We also feel it when we are trying to “cheat”, as in the case of alternative one, above. We must have a real resolution of the issue in order to move on, and get some more emotional stability and harmony in our lives.
Thus, alternative one is not a recommended route. But alternatives two and three are possible avenues to take, depending on which way one leans, in terms of which belief one finally adopts.