OK, now that my “Crash” is out of the way, I’m back to offering rules that – should you decide to accept them – will save time and money devoted to therapy. Well, maybe not, but I hope they are helpful.

So, what is “cognitive dissonance?” Well, first of all, lets go back to the issue of control. One thing control requires is a feeling that things make sense. Cognitive dissonance refers to the times when things don’t make sense, because we are trying to hold and/or act upon two (or more) conflicting beliefs. In order to restore a sense of order, we’ll change one or the other (or both) so the two are no longer in conflict. The other alternative is to avoid recognizing the conflict and basically give up trying to make sense. Let’s try a couple of examples.

Representative Donaught (obviously a made-up name) ran for office because he believed that to establish economic equity in the community is a basic moral requirement. Once he was involved in the political game, he discovered that the only way to stay in office to fulfill that moral requirement was to accept large financial contributions from people who expected him to support causes which would ultimately undermine his goal of economic equity. The stage was set for cognitive dissonance. It might be stated this way: the moral responsibility to work toward reducing inequity vs. the need to commit himself to causes that would maintain inequity. What might he do?

In order to stay comfortably in office, he may change his opinion about the morality of his contributor’s causes and vote to support them because he now sees their cause as good. He may decide that he was being too rigid in his earlier beliefs. Or he may stick to his original moral view and refuse the contributions, potentially being voted out of office. Or he might accept the money without modifying his moral convictions, consequently maintaining a high stress level resulting in psychological symptoms like perpetual anger, or maybe depression, or perhaps physical stress symptoms. And his constituents might complain that he is a do-nothing representative.

Maybe the potential for cognitive dissonance is a reason to prefer public officials who are super wealthy in their own right.

And don’t forget, this will all become more complicated if he isn’t wealthy and needs to stay in office in order to support himself and his family.

Or maybe changing his moral standards vis-à-vis the reason for public office will spill over into other issues, leading, perhaps, to formerly unacceptable personal behavior like sexual affairs. Now poor Mr. Donaught is really in a potential mess. I hope he had a back up plan before he decided to run for office in the first place.

Anticipating cognitive dissonance might be a very good idea before making an important behavioral decision.

Oh, but, most of you who have had the patience to read this far have no plans to run for public office, though it may be a good idea to increase understanding of those who are already there.

So, why read on… ?

How about parenting?

Try this. “I’m punishing you only because I love you.” Cognitive dissonance. “The person who is hurting me says it’s love.” Which is it?

The child may conclude, “She doesn’t really love me. If she did, she wouldn’t hurt me.” Or, “hurting me is part of loving. Love hurts.” Or, given the superior power of the parent, the conclusion may be, “She must be right. There’s something wrong with me. I am bad.” Or how about this, “If this is love, I’ll try to avoid it.”  One way or the other, the child has to modify the understanding either of love, or of hurt. Or maybe this could contribute to denial. “It isn’t really love,” or “It didn’t really hurt.”

Maybe one of those conclusions is one the parent really wants to encourage

(I hope it’s obvious that just one event isn’t going to change the child’s whole understanding of love, life, and relationships. I’m way oversimplifying here.)

How about applying this to spousal abuse?

And then there’s the cognitive dissonance some of us pick up in some churches. “God is love, but some things you do are so bad you may spend eternity burning in hell.” Personally, I’d rather give up the belief in hell. But maybe the best move is to get away from the church that’s delivering cognitively dissonant messages. (Again, oversimplifying for the sake of making a point.)

“Mona is good at making things clear; Mona has just messed with my brain. Mona has just created cognitive dissonance.”


Posted March 28, 2016 by Mona Gustafson Affinito in Uncategorized

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  1. Think of all the politicians who this cognitive thing applies to – my 1st reaction; although each of us probably have experienced it in one form (or degree) at times. Very interesting.

  2. another term for cognitive dissonance may be politics…

  3. I always love it when you share your professional expertise in posts. I’ve learned so much. Until I read this post I wasn’t familiar with the term cognitive dissonance. Based on the examples you gave, I can see that can provide an important lens for understanding situations that don’t make sense on the surface. Thank you!

  4. Enjoyed this read. You are a great writer.

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