Cognitive dissonance

This is a concept, unlike the song, where you consider yourself a contradiction. Cognitive incidents are very disconcerting, and sometimes wrenching experiences causing immense mental discomfort within an individual.

Although the name is very psychological, the concept is extremely simple. This is whereby an individual has two beliefs that are contradictory. Due to these two beliefs, which the person believes to be true, a person can be forced into a state of mental stalemate due to the outcome of evaluating these statements together.

For example...

Let’s take Bill. Bill has had an interesting relationship with his father, and Bill believes the following things;

  • 'My father loves me because he’s my dad'
  • 'My father physically abused me throughout my childhood'

Now, arguably, you could say that one is fact, the other is emotional in terms of its construction within Bill’s mind; however, to Bill, both of these statements have a strong sense of truth. Therefore, for these contrary beliefs, please bear in mind a very interesting psychological quandary - how can a person that loves me abuses me?

This question can lead to some intriguing and obscure errors in thinking, and this particular dissonance can lead you into three possible relationships with reality.

1. A consonant relationship - the thoughts of the actions are consistent with each other. Bill will show his love by not seeing his father and causing further upset for himself or his father.

2. An irrelevant relationship -the thoughts are not connected in any way, and they are unrelated (I need to buy a chicken for my dinner, my dad loves me).

3. A dissonant relationship - whether thoughts are inconsistent with each other. 'I don’t want to see my father because he abuses me'... and then Bill goes round regularly to see him anyway.

Quintessentially, the higher the value that a person places in the belief of either of these contradictory statements will determine how affected they will be by the cognitive dissonance. Other psychological elements can also be crucial in promoting these errors in thinking, for example, high-stress levels will intensify the dissonance. The body is, when stressed, engaging in a fight or flight response, and is, therefore, unable to think clearly - impeding progress in finding a solution. Likewise, cognitive dissidents within a person’s mind can promote stress and cause a vicious cycle within a person’s psyche. Essentially, the person is torturing themselves with their own thoughts.

When faced with this problem, people usually choose one of four ways to get out of the situation - some good, some not so good.

1. Ignoring or denying the problem even exists - 'What tosh! My father would never abuse me! What are you on about?!'.

2. Justifying the cognition by changing it - 'I do not have a healthy relationship with my father, but if I change the amount of time I see him, we can work it out over time'.

3. Justifying the cognition by changing a behaviour that surrounds it - 'I will try and work on our relationship by only seeing my father for a set time each week'.

4. Changing the behaviour cognition - 'I need some help with this, so I will go and get some help to get me out of this problem' (i.e. going to see a professional therapist).

You may be wondering why cognitive dissidents are so problematic. One of the theories that stems from cognitive dissidents is that if an individual is placed into a confusing status, they will do anything to get out of that status, including being extremely compliant. Psychologists often refer to this as 'forced compliance'.

This all emanated from a study in the late 50s, where a group of research subjects were given a very tedious and boring task to do. The task was something like turning a piece of paper slightly at a fixed interval. This is a mind-numbingly boring and tedious task that was designed to promote negativity, disengagement, and boredom. The research participants were then divided into three groups and they were asked to interact with another individual (who was a paid actor) and try to convince that person that boring tasks were fun. One group was given a sense of $20 payment, the other group was given $1 payment and the third group was the control group, and they had no interaction with the actor whatsoever.

Cognitions then turned into dissidents, as you had individuals who said during the study that 'I told someone that the task was interesting, and I actually found it boring'. Now the force compliance comes in with the money, as those that were paid $20 all went against their original belief for the money. By introducing a financial incentive, the psychologists were able to influence the research group into compliance by making them internalise their own dissonance, suppressing their actual feelings and emotions to promote their agenda.

For the record, I wouldn’t necessarily say that any individual who undergoes cognitive dissidents is an individual that is being manipulated, however, the likelihood of an individual who is experiencing cognitive dissidents in exposing their vulnerability to such predatorial entities could be significantly increased.

It is, therefore, always important to have a trusted friend, therapist, or an individual who will act as a sounding board to help negotiate the thinking errors caused by dissonance. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Normanton, West Yorkshire, WF6 2DB
Written by Brian Turner, BA (Hons.) MNCS Snr Accred / Supervisor. (Prof. Dip PsyC)
Normanton, West Yorkshire, WF6 2DB

I am a psychotherapist that works with anxiety depression and suicidal issues. I use a diverse and wide spectrum of techniques to ensure that my clients feel empowered and confident, so they are able to achieve what they wish to achieve when presenting with a broad range of issues.

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