Cognitive dissonance: how to ease mental discomfort

By Josep F. Mària, SJ

When we interact with others, we tend to suppress our affective inconsistencies. For example, it makes us uncomfortable to have overall positive perceptions of someone but negative ones of their specific behaviour. This is why, when we like someone, we tend to see the positive side of their behaviour, even when it clearly isn't good ("He was having a bad day...").

Likewise, when we don't like someone, we tend to judge their behaviours as negative even if they are clearly good ("He's doing it for personal gain..."), because it makes us feel uncomfortable to simultaneously have overall negative perceptions of a person but positive ones of her specific behaviour.

Psychologists call these affective inconsistencies cognitive dissonance because there is dissonance between knowing someone is good or bad overall and knowing that their specific conduct is bad or good.

Cognitive dissonance noun Psychology
Anxiety that results from simultaneously holding contradictory or otherwise incompatible attitudes, beliefs, or the like, as when one likes a person but disapproves strongly of one of his or her habits.

Why do we adopt strategies to suppress cognitive dissonance? Because our subconscious gets uncomfortable with inconsistency. It wants to rest easy, live in peace and not to have to reconsider how it feels about a person every time they do something new. This is why our "lazy" subconscious manages to turn cognitive dissonance into consonance.

Our subconscious gets uncomfortable with inconsistency

As Josep Miralles, SJ, often notes ironically: "Nobody needs to teach us to lie to ourselves: we are self-deception masters from the time we are born."

Less funny is the fact that this self-deception is very convincing – so much so that neurologists and sociologists call it "construction of reality." In other words, we are convinced that the result of our mental operation (or construction) makes us perceive reality as it is – even though it's not!

How does our brain suppress cognitive dissonance? As the neuroscientist Jordi Camí once explained:

  • We modify memories so that evidence from the past matches the consonant result that the brain desires. For instance, we forget past generous acts by people who we consider to be bad.
  • We select from present evidence only the data that allow a match between the present and the brain's desire. For instance, we only pay attention to the negative aspects of a person's present behaviour.

These constructions of reality that we create to achieve consonance in our heads have consequences that are not always consonant outside of our heads. For instance:

  • If a person's conduct is perceived as good by one observer and as bad by another, this could result in a conflict between the two observers.
  • Many social actors attempt to make us accept their constructions of reality to force a conduct in ourselves that will free us from dissonance – a behaviour that benefits them economically or politically. "Vendors, advertisers, politicians, gurus... can manipulate your unconscious brain and induce you to make a choice that you believe is free." (Jordi Camí)

What can you do to create more consonant relationships outside of your head?

  • Maintain the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
  • Practice self-awareness to become conscious of your desire for consonance, which makes you believe some people are good and others are bad.
  • Double-check your construction of reality with other people involved in the same situation. For instance, talk to people who know the person causing the dissonance.

These practices allow you to expand your past evidence (by considering evidence that your desire had censored) as well as your present evidence (by sharpening your senses to include data that your desire had discarded).

In this way, your head can reconstruct reality and make cognitive dissonance more consonant – not more consonant in your head, but more consonant with the constructions taking place in your head and the heads of those around you.

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