As a smart person with abundant cognitive horsepower, you probably know what it's like to see both sides of an issue even when you can only actually choose one. Any of these ring a bell?
- You're moved by ethical considerations for veganism, but you eat a steak every night.
- You want to spend your life "changing the world" in a humanitarian sense, but you work 80 hours per week at a content farm.
- Reproducing seems ethically dubious, but you've already got 3 kids.
This is cognitive dissonance: a state of psychic conflict amongst various beliefs, or between beliefs and behavior. Our brains try real hard to resolve towards some kind of comfy equilibrium, but it doesn't always work automatically.
The problem with cognitive dissonance
Harboring cognitive dissonance is like hauling around a leaky bucket full of valuable liquid.
(good wine? homemade kombucha? scorpion venom? whatever you want).
You're trying to take the big dumb bucket of wine from point A to point B, limping asymmetrically all the while. Wine constantly drips out the bottom and splats on the floor, unsalvageable. When the going gets especially rough, wine sloshes right over the bucket's sides in ill-fated waves.
You're left with much less wine in your bucket than you had hoped or planned. Maybe the bucket is completely empty by the time you get where you thought you should go. (Guess that party's off).
Your brain is powerful, but it can only handle so much. When your intellectual attention is constantly redirected towards doubting yourself, you're left with less attention and energy to do the things you really want or need to do.
Cognitive dissonance can ruin anything: any success, any pleasure, any satisfaction.
Extreme cognitive dissonance can paralyze, preventing you from taking action altogether.
How to reconceptualize problems as cognitive dissonances
Headier "first world problems" and most slow-motion personal crises of modernity can be fruitfully characterized as instances of cognitive dissonance.
- Your job is not terrible, but it's not great. You sincerely value not being chained to your desk, but at the same time you feel that you should experience more passion and flow at work.
- You constantly hear about the many social problems created by massive wealth inequality; this state of affairs concerns you. At the same time, you grumble at paying your astronomical taxes and don't give much to charity, either.
- As far as you can tell, climate change is real and caused directly by humans; it could be curtailed or coped with by deliberate human action, too. To do your part, you judge that you ought to reduce your carbon footprint. Yet, you drive your car every day and desperately want to produce a bunch of kids.
Each of these features a belief in direct contradiction of a behavior. Hypocrisy? Something more complicated? It's hard to say.
You may feel as though your problems are big muddles, like jello in a plastic bag that you can't quite grip. But, as a starting point, you can hone those problems into something clearer by specifying exactly how something you believe/know/want conflicts with something else you believe/know/want/etc.
Stress test your cognitive economy
Why should you do this, though? What do you gain by thinking of your issues specifically as instances of cognitive dissonance?
When you reconceptualize issues in terms of the dissonance amongst your mental moving parts, you become newly aware of the possibilities for reestablishing harmony. You don't have to go with your gut on which part to attempt to "move" mentally, try to force yourself to believe what seems popular, waffle back and forth forever, or just do nothing.
Instead, you can semi-methodically "stress test" your values, beliefs, observations, etc. by laying these cards out on the table, sorting through them, assessing which are more or less justified by credible evidence, and devising mini experiments (in living or in thinking) to generate new evidence.
I'm not into mantras, yet I say this every day: no easy answers. The weakest link in your cognitive economy might not jump right out at you. And it's often a challenge to drag recalcitrant emotions along for the ride with your well-considered beliefs.
But this is the only way forward.
"Why can't I just think less?!"
Since cognitive dissonance doesn't usually present as a time-pressured crisis, smart people often try to simply stuff it down.
"Why can't I just think less?" you may lament. "No one else is hung up on this stuff."
First of all, you have little way of knowing just how much dissonance other people are harboring - maybe as much as you. And, importantly but unfortunately, cognitive dissonance doesn't always go away on its own. Something's gotta give.
You will keep thinking about whatever-it-is again and again until a change occurs. And the more times you rehearse the dissonance in the terms it first appeared, the more stuck you'll become exactly in those deepening mental ruts. In other words, leaving the dissonance in place for now can lead to it become worse instead of better over time.
It might not even occur to you that you can do something different, in the face of seemingly-intractable dissonance. After all, when you try to talk about complicated stuff with people out in the regular world, it's often not... intellectually fruitful.
Your family and friends will just try to support you (if you're lucky), or they'll fail to engage/brush you off (if you're not lucky). Distinctions get glossed over. The status quo gets upheld.
Two heads are better than one
If you can find the right kind to add, then two heads may still really be better than one.
This is tough to explain in less casual terms, and I certainly can't market this to the masses: If you're smart and stuck way up in your own head, I can get on your level.
For the rest of you who made it this far, I wish you all the best in your stress testing endeavors. Please sign up to receive my weeklyish emailsto hear when I produce more on cognitive dissonance and related topics.
Pamela J. Hobart - Philosophical Life Coaching Newsletter
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