Cognitive Dissonance – or what happens when we disagree with ourselves.

multi-coloured lights to represent cognitive dissonanceCognitive dissonance is a slightly unwieldy psychological term for a phenomenon we will all have experienced.  It is the uncomfortable, confused feeling we get when two or more of our beliefs or values are in conflict with each other.

Dissonance is defined as a lack of harmony between musical notes. That’s really a good way of thinking of this – a kind of harsh, discordant clashing of thoughts and ideas in your own mind.

I experience cognitive dissonance all the time and I suspect that you do too.  That’s perfectly ok.  The important thing is what you do next.

For example, I have a fundamental belief in kindness and tolerance.  I think the world would be a much better place if we just accepted that other people have a right to their own viewpoints.  I also believe very strongly that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” (Edmund Burke).  So sometimes, when I see the expression of views which are alien to my own beliefs and values, I don’t know whether to challenge or accept, to say something or be tolerant.

This is a really uncomfortable place to be.  I want to stand up for what I believe in but I’m not sure what that is.  Which belief should win?

None of us wants to feel uncomfortable so we are motivated towards behaviours which will reduce the cognitive dissonance.  Sometimes we find helpful behaviours but, more often, when we are being less self-aware, we will find unhelpful responses.


It is really easy to reduce cognitive dissonance by avoiding the situations that cause it.  In the example above I could stop using social media, stop reading newspapers and stop exposing myself to some of the more extreme racist, sexist etc. views that are expressed.  If I am never faced with a need to challenge views I will never feel uncomfortable about it.


Alternatively, I could simply adjust my beliefs to fit any given situation.  If faced with a particularly hateful comment on Twitter, for example, I could convince myself that there is no need to respond because it was probably written by a robot and therefore I am not able to influence it.  Or I could tell myself not to feed the trolls.

In avoiding or adjusting I am really just trying to make myself feel more comfortable.  I am not addressing the fact that, behind the immediate situation, I need to find a way to accommodate both beliefs.  Real learning and self-awareness does not come from a comfortable place.  It is this very dissonance which tells us that there is a learning opportunity at hand.

You may not share my conflicting views about tolerance and challenging hatred.  This could lead you to think that cognitive dissonance is not an issue for you.  But think outside of my immediate example and look at your own experiences.

Perhaps you gave up drinking or smoking as a new year resolution.  You genuinely believe that smoking/drinking is bad for you but you also genuinely believe that it helps you to relax and de-stress.  How do you decide what to do when the craving kicks in?  Which belief is given dominance and how do you reduce the dis-harmony?

Maybe your relationship is in difficulty.  You fundamentally believe in the vows you made (for better or worse, till death do us part) but you also believe that you have the right to be in a happy and fulfilling relationship.

That, right there, is an opportunity for personal development.  You have been presented with an opportunity to learn something important about yourself.  But the learning doesn’t always come easily.

In my case, many years ago, I learned about Unconditional Positive Regard.  I learned that it is important to respect people, to accept that they are a product of their experiences and that it is not my place to judge them.  But I also learned to separate the person from the behaviour.  I can challenge what they say.  I can challenge what they do.  But if I am to be congruent, to stick within my beliefs about kindness and tolerance, I have to do so respectfully.  I cannot be nasty or vicious in my response.  This allows my apparently conflicting beliefs to operate in harmony with one another.  It took me three years of counsellor training to really learn this lesson and I am still faced with it on a daily basis.  FYI – I still don’t feed the trolls!

What have you learnt about yourself and your beliefs today?

How are you going to make the most of this learning opportunity?

Coaching for Personal Development

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