You know how sometimes you realize you should go to the gym and get back into some type of workout routine, but instead you sit on the couch with a bag of Doritos watching a Terminator marathon?

Or how you tell yourself that you are concerned about global warming and you know that the animal farming industry is bad for the environment but you continue eating animal products anyway?

Or how you know The Walking Dead is an awful television show and it’s only still on the air because people like you keep watching it and yet you can not muster the willpower stop tuning in1It’s like, “I’m seven seasons deep. I’ve already invested so much time into this stupid show, I can’t stop watching it now.” I feel your ...continue

To a large extent, we’re all hypocrites in some regard. We like to believe we’re logical and rational creatures, but often times, our beliefs and desires win out over logic and rationality.

In psychology, this hypocrisy is known as Cognitive Dissonance and it’s defined as a psychological conflict that is caused by simultaneous incongruous beliefs and attitudes.

There are three different types of cognitive dissonance:

  1. Belief vs Belief: Like when you believe that people have free will and that we are all at the whim of destiny, which doesn’t make any fucking sense.
  2. Action vs Belief: Like when you tell yourself you procrastinate too much and then you spend your whole day watching HowToBasic videos on Youtube.
  3. Evidence vs Belief: Like when you were confronted with the idea that Santa isn’t real even though you believed that he was for your entire childhood. (What, did those cookies just eat themselves all these years?!?)

When we recognize a contradiction between any opposing notions, we experience cognitive dissonance either consciously or subconsciously.

For example, when you were confronted with evidence of Santa’s non-existence, you could surely feel the immediate effects of the apparent contradiction. You had to actively engage in a mental process to find a way to make sense of the dichotomy before you.

But the fact that there is a contradiction between your belief in free will and destiny has probably already been rationalized by your subconscious mind, and thus you probably aren’t consciously aware of it. You may only notice it once you consciously focus on the problem.

It is believed that we feel cognitive dissonance because our minds like to remain in a state of consistency. We like to be consistent in our beliefs and our actions, and we like to believe that our beliefs are founded upon evidence based in the natural world. 2Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.

Upon entering a state of cognitive dissonance, we try like hell to get out of it. We don’t like living in disharmony, so we employ one or more of four specific tactics to reduce or eliminate the dissonance.

Let’s say you have decided that you are going to start saving some money every month by spending less on frivolities, but then your friends entice you to go out with them for an expensive night of dinner and drinks. You can resolve this dissonance by doing one of the following:

1. Ignore or deny any evidence that contradicts your beliefs.

I’m not spending money on frivolities.

2. Justify your actions or beliefs by altering the initial conflict.

I’m allowed to go out every once in a while.

3. Justify your actions or beliefs by amending your initial declaration or belief.

I’ll just spend less money on groceries this month.

4. Changing the actions you take or the beliefs you hold.

This is the last time I go out and spend money like this.

We’ve all used each of these methods of dissonance reduction more times than we can count; we’re just instead used to calling it “making excuses.”

The thing about the reduction or elimination of cognitive dissonance is that it often doesn’t solve the problem that caused us to feel the dissonance in the first place.

Instead of analyzing why you went out with your friends after you decided that you were going to reduce that behavior, you created justifications for the action to avoid the potential hardship of having to change or grow as a person.

These dissonance reduction methods might seem like commonplace reactions to an arguable non-issue, but their prevalence in everyday personal problem solving is far more detrimental to personal growth than we realize, and there are several reasons why we should stop using each of them.

How To NOT Solve Your Life Problems

1. Ignore or deny any evidence that contradicts your beliefs.

This is probably the worst reduction on the list. Why?

Because it involves the sheer denial of your current actions, circumstances, or the nature of reality in order to avoid conflict with a maxim you have created or a belief you hold.

will mcavoy from the newsroom

If you decided that you don’t want to blow money on expensive nights out anymore, denying that you are doing so when you clearly are is not doing you any service.

It might be easier to live in the dreamlands of our minds, but at some point, we have to face the music. We have to face reality.

Take a look at your wants and goals. Not stupid shit like sports cars or jacuzzis. I’m talking about personal goals and ambitions. Weight loss. A promotion at work. Meeting your significant other.

Denying reality to ease the pain of not having these things is arguably only treating the symptom, and it’s not doing a very good job at that anyway.

Instead of denying reality, embrace it. Own up to it. Look yourself square in the eye, define your goals, and then put in the work necessary to achieve them. By denying reality, you’re really only denying yourself the best opportunity to be the best you. And that’s bullshit.

2. Justify your actions or beliefs by altering the initial conflict.

This method of reduction is arguably better than the first method, because here you are at least acknowledging that there is a conflict, but it is still not a desirable reduction method. Why?

Because you are creating a justification for an action that created a conflict so that you are better able to personally contend with it.

If you decided you didn’t want to go out with your friends and blow money so often, you had to have done so for a reason.

Did going out with your friends one night cause you to actually realize that your initial decision to spend less money with them was wrong? Or was it simply easier for you to think that to justify your current actions?

Maybe you did have some type of revelation while you were out with your friends, but I’d bet that it’s just easier for you to make an excuse than to face the dissonance head on.

Again, don’t kid yourself. You might not be denying the actual act of wasting money in this scenario, but you are still denying the gravity of the conflict.

Face reality. Own up to your bullshit. And stop making excuses.

3. Justify your actions or beliefs by amending your initial declaration or belief.

We’re getting warmer.

This reduction method is better than the first two because nothing is being denied here. But instead, it involves the displacement of the original responsibility you may have had onto a new or lesser declaration.

Changing your initial declaration after the fact only creates a justification for your current actions. If spending less money on groceries were actually a viable model for reducing your expenditures, you would have chosen to do that from the outset. The fact that you only chose to limit grocery purchases after you decided to go out with your friends clearly points out your own hypocrisy.

Don’t shortchange yourself. Take responsibility for your problems and work towards actually solving them. If it sounds like I’m beating a dead horse, it’s because I am. Don’t make excuses. Make change.

4. Changing the actions you take or the beliefs you hold.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Telling yourself that you made a mistake in thought or action and then vowing to never do it again is a huuuuuge step in the right direction.

But you’re not in the green just yet.

I don’t know about you, but I make promises to myself that I break all of the time.

“I’m going to work out tomorrow. I’m going to spend less time on Facebook. I’m going to stop watching this stupid Walking Dead show.”

Time and time again, I broker a deal with myself only to renege on it shortly thereafter. I can only assume that this is some type of universal state we all inhabit at one point; an inescapable aspect of the human condition.

I think on some level we’re all aware that changing one’s actions or beliefs is the only way to truly solve any form of cognitive dissonance.

But we tend to equate the notion of actually changing our actions or beliefs with simply telling ourselves we will change our actions or beliefs, as if they are one in the same idea.

So this method of dissonance reduction should actually read:

4.1. Telling yourself you will change the actions you take or the beliefs you hold.

When you’re having a good time with your friends out on the town, you probably have that moment where you think, “Shit. I did it again. I can’t keep living like this. I gotta get control of my life. This is it. This is the last time I do this.”

And then you feel better. You’re able to enjoy the rest of your evening as if everything is roses and daisies.

But everything is not roses and daisies, because what you’ve actually said is, “This is the last time I do this (for now).”

It’s so easy to speak in moral absolutes when you’re face to face with your own hypocrisy: when you’re at the bar by yourself staring at your fifth drink in two hours; when you fork over the rest of your last paycheck for another pack of cigarettes; when you reach into the bag for another potato chip only to realize you’ve eaten the whole fucking thing by yourself in one sitting.

“This is the last time I do this,” you silently voice to yourself.

Only it’s not. It’s never the last time, but always the last time again. We seem to have short memories when it comes to promises we make to ourselves.

girl sitting on boat dock
So often we enter into bouts of depressive self-reflection as we question what’s wrong with us and why we can’t figure it out.

But that feeling of dissonance, of knowing that you let yourself down, quickly fades in the face of new stimuli.

You may have decided that you’re done wasting money at bars all of the time, but then after a week you start to get lonely and your friends ask you to go out with them. Or maybe you’re tired of hating the figure staring back at you in the mirror every time you get out of the shower, but then the next day, you wake up tired and don’t feel like going to the gym.

It’s truly amazing how quickly we forget the promises we’ve made to ourselves so we can embark on short-term thrills in an attempt to fill voids of long-term happiness.

Or perhaps it’s more surprising how often we make promises to ourselves with the knowledge that it will only provide momentary comfort and not an actual lifestyle change.

Sometimes the continual struggle with dissonance becomes so great that we are truly able to break the seemingly infinite cycle of self-loathing behavior. We are able to escape the clutches of the constant contrast of beliefs and actions within our heads.

The solution to your frivolous spending dissonance would be to stop going out on the town, right?

Yes, but changing your actions is actually only one solution, which gives way to another version of this method of reduction:

4.2. Changing the the wrong actions you take or beliefs you hold.

You could also very well change one of the beliefs you hold. Perhaps you decide frivolous spending is a necessary component of life and so you no longer fret about the money you blow every few days on booze and food.

The problem we’re butt up against now is this: we’ve reduced the dissonance, but have we solved the problem?

Most people, myself included, would say no, because the initial problem of too much money being spent has not been solved.

When you should have changed the action (going out to eat too often) you instead changed the belief (going out to eat too often is a waste of money).

How Do We Solve This Dissonance Bullshit Then?

It would seem at this point that our four methods of dissonance reduction don’t do shit in the face of the dissonance we feel every day, that humans are so hellbent on continuing their habits that any change of character is impossible.

This pessimistic notion isn’t without some sense.

So much of what we do and what we believe is a part of our identity. If being a human wasn’t hard enough, we also constantly struggle with understanding who we are. Once we’ve worked so hard to repeatedly cultivate beliefs and continually take actions, the notion of changing either one of those facets in relation to our lives becomes a form of identity suicide.

We are our repeated beliefs and actions, and so to change them means to change ourselves. It is one matter to actually change who we are, but it is another matter entirely to have to change our own perceptions of who we are. Because if we can’t rightly grasp who we are, then how will other people?

The answer to all of these imponderables can be answered with the fifth method of dissonance reduction I would like to introduce now:

5. (Actually) Changing the actions you take or beliefs you hold that have proven detrimental to your life.

Before we dive into this last reduction method, let’s first look at a metaphor for dissonance using potential girlfriends.

First there’s Stacy.

Stacy is pretty cool. She likes going to the movies, she has a great sense of humor, and she’s currently working towards some fancy degree in ancient anthropological studies or some kind of smart people shit.

On the other hand there’s Miranda.

Miranda is also a nice gal. She’s adventurous and loves to travel, she is an excellent communicator, and she cooks like a fat grandma trapped in a skinny 20-something’s body.

You’d be happy to be able to date either of these girls, and they would both be happy to date you.

The problem is Stacy knows about Miranda and Miranda knows about Stacy, and neither of them is okay with being second fiddle. You get to be with one of them or with neither of them.

The choice is yours. You know you want to be in a relationship with someone. So do you choose Stacy? Or Miranda?

Naturally, you would choose the girl that you would think is best for you. Maybe you hate to travel, so you think Stacy would be the better pick for you. Or maybe you’re not a very intellectual person, and so you think Miranda might be the better option.

Regardless of who you pick, because there is no right answer, your choice is going to be made from a place of personal self-interest.

If there was a third option named Olga who hit you all the time and smelled like old cheese, I would imagine that you wouldn’t pick her because it wouldn’t be in your best interests to do so. Unless you’re into that kind of thing…

Hopefully you can see how the girlfriend metaphor simplifies our problems with dissonance reduction. They are all or nothing problems.

Dissonance is defined as a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements. The only way to resolve it is to remove one of the elements because you can’t have it both ways. That’s not how life works.

So if you want to truly save money by spending less when you go out with your friends, then you need to actively change your lifestyle to make that a reality.

How many times do you go out a month? 10? If you think that’s too many, then start cutting back. Try going out 8 or 9 times. If that’s still too many then try 6 or 7.

Be honest with yourself, but also be realistic with your goals.

Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t wake up one day and say, “I’m going to be the most jacked fucking Austrian that there ever was. Oh, and I’m going to be Governator of California too.”

That’s not how goals work.

You can make a large goal. But you need to break it up into bite-sized pieces so that you can properly assess how to go about achieving it.

The same goes with actions you are trying to change.

We often know what the right thing to do is. We know what types of food we should be eating or what types of relationships we should strive to have. We just don’t always do what’s right because what’s right isn’t what’s easy.

So often we are afraid to do what is right because we know it will be hard and we might fail. Or worse, if we succeed, we will have to change.

But these are misplaced fears. We should not fear failure or change.

Failure is a necessary step to refinement. We are only ever able to discover how to make things better by first discovering a million ways to make them worse. And things can only get better if they are able to change from how they were to how they should be. Success is simply a process of elimination.

Final Thoughts

I’d like you to do me a favor.

Take a good hard look at your life. Analyze what you do and what you believe. Scour your mind and look for any signs of disharmony.

Find a sheet of paper and list all of the conflicting actions, beliefs, and evidence you find so you can visualize your own cognitive dissonances.

When comparing each of your beliefs and actions, decide which facet is the troublesome one. (Hint: it’s usually the action because we’re too damn lazy and scared to do what we know is right.)

Once you’ve identified the trouble, create a plan that will allow you to actually solve the problem, not just mitigate the dissonance.

I covered action vs. belief dissonance pretty extensively above, so if you’re still confused, maybe scroll back up and give the article another once over.

As far as conflicting beliefs and evidence, you must first understand that your beliefs are based upon what you have deemed to be reliable evidence.

So Belief vs Belief dissonance and Evidence vs Belief dissonance are really the same thing when you distil both types of dissonance down to the pieces of evidence that represent them.

In order to eliminate evidence-based dissonance, you need to evaluate the evidence you have that either a) represents the contended evidence (Evidence vs Belief) or b) forms the foundation for your belief (Belief vs Belief or Evidence vs Belief).

Is it good evidence? Where did it come from? Has the issue been peer reviewed? Have you ever even looked at any contradictory evidence?

Asking these sorts of rigorous questions will allow you to see any potential holes in the evidence. If the evidence survives your intense scrutiny, then you may allow it to remain intact. If it doesn’t, then it needs to be discarded and replaced with something more reliable or trustworthy.

Getting rid of the dissonance in your life is no easy task, hence the reason we spend so much of our time making excuses and procrastinating actions.

But just because getting rid of your internal dissonance is difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

You can do this.

So go now. Set your goals, reach your dreams, and become the person you have always wanted to be. The only thing stopping you is yourself.

man jumping near mountain and sunset

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It’s like, “I’m seven seasons deep. I’ve already invested so much time into this stupid show, I can’t stop watching it now.” I feel your pain homie. If nothing else, it gives me a weekly outlet for venting my personal frustrations at my television. C’est la vie.
2. Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.


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