Cognitive Dissonance

The Elephant in the Room

One of the things that hold people back from making meaningful and lasting change is cognitive dissonance. Its like ignoring the Elephant in the Room. Take a smoker for example or an alcoholic. Both are aware that their habits are harmful. The smoker is cognitive of the fact that smoking causes lung cancer and the alcoholic is aware that drinking is doing her harm; however both will persist in the habit. We won’t talk about it. Why?

The theory of cognitive dissonance states that individuals do not like their actions to conflict with their attitudes. The divergence results in tension called cognitive dissonance. People will find ways to reduce the dissonance by adjusting their behavior, seeking information that contradicts their beliefs or deciding that on the balance of things the habit is worth it. Life is too short so why give up the pleasure of smoking, drinking or drugs.

From the time I started drinking I knew that it was doing me harm. I had seen the effects and I knew that based on a family history of alcoholism I was at high risk of becoming alcoholic. I experienced a high degree of cognitive dissonance expressed as regret and remorse at my drinking.

Making Excuses

Over the years I tried to control my drinking and stop many times without luck. I was trying to cure the cognitive dissonance just not the drinking. If I could drink without all the bad stuff then it would be OK.

Often it’s a close call that gets us to re-evaluate. Fear of death seems to spike dissonance. After almost getting run over by a Semi Trailer I decided to quit drinking. The actual driver approached me in a bar and said that he would have run me over had he not recognized me. Pulling to the side had almost caused him to leave the road. His suggestion was that I quit drinking or probably die. Three things happened:

  1. I quit deciding that I had run out of chances and would lose my life if I continued. This lasted for a day and I decided to substitute starting with light beer and then moving to half measures before deciding that taste is more important than dissonance.
  2. After a while I decided that as long as I stayed off the roads drunk I should be okay. I reassured myself that despite some close calls in the past the odds were still on my side. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggested this. Cheers!
  3. There was still doubt (dissonance) and alcoholic obstinacy kicked in to compensate. Drinking with a head full of doubt is no fun, so more drink is required. We all know that once a drink is taken a chemical reaction takes place in the brain which over rides logic. I would quickly convince myself that I was harming no one by drinking. Alcohol made life pleasurable and was therefore worth the small risks it carried. I could always quit whenever I wanted to, just not now.

Almost being flattened by a Semi Trailer had me readjust my attitudes in a manner that reduced my cognitive dissonance but allowed me to continue to drink unabated.

The Bleeding Obvious

Being alcoholic creates a new type of cognitive dissonance, the tension that exists when we refrain from drinking and our body and mind is addicted to it. The thought of refraining from alcohol is bad enough let alone imagining a life time without it. In addition we can easily justify what we do to ourselves and others. We become trapped in a paradigm that can shift to ignorance and conflict with others. The opinions of others no longer matters. We become resentful of those that disagree with us or worse, try to change us. Addiction at its worst will see people do anything to protect it.

Alcohol may be man’s worst enemy, but the bible says love your enemy.” – Frank Sinatra

Nothing less than a fundamental change in mindset bought on by a psychic shift bought on by a spiritual experience worked for me.

Storm Trooper Finn’s Dilemma

Star Wars has many examples of inner and outer conflict. Luke Skywalker was a case study in cognitive dissonance as was his father Anakin. They both suffered from a lack of rationality bought on by conflicting ideals and motives. Anakin wanted to be a Jedi but at the same time he wanted to control people, places and things. Anakin wanted to bring order to the Force in his own fashion and overcome mortality. The tension eventually pushed him to the Dark Side. Luke on the other hand was conflicted as to his role. Is he a moisture farmer or a rebel, does he fight his father or side with him? The story of Luke is a classic “Heroes Journey”.

We see the same type of dissonance in the “The Force Awakens”, Storm Trooper Finn has a crisis of conscience. Being a merciless killer for the Empire does not gel with him and he deserts his post to join the Rebellion. Soldiers who decide to desert on grounds of morality don’t usually do it at the spur of the moment as Finn suggests. There is usually months if not years of dissonance. What they do does not agree with who they are. Something eventually has to give and they leave.

“I’m not Resistance, I’m not a hero, I’m a stormtrooper. Like all of them, I was taken from a family I’ll never know. And raised to do one thing. But my first battle, I made a choice. I wasn’t gonna kill for them. So I ran.” – Storm Trooper Finn “Episode VII: The Force Awakens”


Stay or Go?

I know a few deserters and there is one thing in common with all of them. All quit because they were deeply dissatisfied and disillusioned. Some were close to suicide. They could not stay no matter how hard they tried. They were still torn at leaving their comrades behind. All of them to this day regret their decision. Cognitive dissonance can suck. No matter what we decide to do, it is going to hurt and there will be regrets even if it was the right thing to do.

So how does one deal with Cognitive Dissonance? No one likes to feel lousy about what they are doing especially when they know that it is the right thing to do. A person can be sober and still have Cognitive Dissonance. Despite being dry they may have adopted habits or attitudes that are maladaptive or destructive. The “Dry Drunk” can eventually relapse.

Emotional sobriety is about accepting ourselves and embracing who we are. It is about rejecting denial and being willing to see things differently. Often this means rejecting our previously deeply held prejudices and attitudes. Recovery means being willing to explore new ideas and adapt to life readily instead of being attached to one way or another.  When we know who we are, commit to values and act in accordance with them in a spirit of non-attachment we are unlikely to suffer dissonance.

Be gentle with yourself, Let Go of what does not serve, especially limiting prejudices and adopt an attitude of “Live and Let Live”.

Part II: Overcoming Cognitive Dissonance


The ability to speak does not make you intelligent” – Qui-Gon Jinn “Episode 1: The Phantom Menace”

Jar Jar Binks was one of the most annoying characters created by George Lucas in the prequels. Many Star Wars fans cringe at the Gungan buffoon and derided the prequels for introducing him. Jar Jar Binks is actually like a lot of people we meet and not all of them act that way when they are drunk though they may at times sound like him. They are usually drawing a lot of attention their way and speaking a lot without actually saying anything useful.

How often do we kick ourselves after we have said something better left unsaid. We often catch ourselves too late. It would be better to think before speaking. There are also times when we wish we had said something but we didn’t. Not speaking up also seems at times as bad as saying the wrong things at the wrong times.


Silence is a virtue or so we are told. The teachers in my catholic school would remind us often that children are seen and not heard. Silence was imposed and voicing an opinion was discouraged. I have discovered that often the greatest wisdom comes from the mouth of a child. Plain truth belies innocence. One should always speak their truth quietly and clearly. Listen to your kids or Grand kids often.

Learning when to speak and when to keep silence is an art. We all want to be heard. Sometimes we are not given the chance. The loudest and most assertive speakers generally get the floor. Passive and quiet people are usually not heard above the din.

The Power of Quiet

I’ve usually found the loud, gregarious and boorish types who insist on being heard above others have the least to say. The ability to speak does not always imply intelligence. In our society it seems that the most vocal and the loudest get the most airplay time. There is nothing wrong with that as it is a sign of open discourse which keeps Democracy alive. This is true as long as others are not silenced and forgotten. The loud and arrogant have a right to be heard but so do the quiet and humble.

Usually the quiet types are the ones we need to listen to. Their silence might not hide ignorance but a reluctance to speak. They may also know that saving your voice for when it’s required is often the best approach. You see them in the back of the room at meetings. They are also the silent person at work and the quiet achiever in the team. When they speak up I usually listen intently. The quiet ones usually have something I often lack; diplomacy, wisdom and tact.

“[The Spartans] conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle … This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child”. – Plato

Who would’ve thought the Spartans were the silent types? Many guys I met who were Special Forces Operators were quiet and unassuming but also sharp as a tack. The mark of a true warrior. A lot of people mistake being quiet for being weak, often a big mistake! The guys you met in a Bar who were loud and telling war stories were usually from rear units or had never served. Big mouths are usually compensating for some deficiency.

Speak Up!

Francis Bacon said that “silence is the virtue of fools”; this is true for those who remain silent when they should have spoken up.  Never remain silent when to do so would be an injustice. If we speak up and learn that despite what is apparent we are wrong then we can make amends. It is too late after something wrong happens that we could have otherwise prevented by raising our voice. It often stuns me when I learn that an accident has happened in the workplace and I hear someone say “I could see that was going to happen”. My first question is “Why didn’t you say anything?” . We all have a responsibility to speak up when it is required.

The fictional Jedi by nature were not gregarious, they were assertive and they did speak up when it was required. They did however speak mindfully; they measured their approach and considered their words particularly over delicate matters. The Jedi used tact and diplomacy. Words were not wasted. They said a lot in few words.

Listen Up!

We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” –Zeno of Citium

Being a good listener is also a virtue. When we speak we are moving from the known to the known. Listening takes us from the unknown to the known, we learn something. Then in order to communicate effectively one must actively listen and respond being mindful of what we say and how we say it. Language is only partially verbal; body language, facial expressions, eye contact, hand motions, tone and the most subtle cues often communicate more than words. By listening actively we are communicating.

Women in particular are expert at picking cues and know when a guy is not listening. So for the sake of serenity, Listen!

A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he knows something.” –Wilson Mizner

Meesa throw it all together

Knowing how to listen and when to speak and when to hold tongue is an exercise in self discipline and mindfulness. As an alcoholic I often feel compelled to allow my emotions to drive my tongue. It takes real presence of mind to catch myself. A speech injected with anger or resentment may get an impact but it is one we learn to regret later. Angry or yelling we don’t hear anything, not even ourselves making a mess of things. In recovery we learn that anger and resentment does not serve us. To throw anger at others through our words makes us feel worse not better.

“”First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak.” – Epictetus

Jar Jar Binks eventually made it to the Galactic Senate and despite his clumsiness with words and actions still proved to be a worthy ally up until the fall of the Republic. The fact that he became a politician seems a parody of our own society where sometimes the politician with the biggest mouth ends up in the highest office. We should still be willing to give those people the benefit of the doubt when they say things that are less than intelligent. After all many of us said things that we wish we hadn’t and expected the same courtesy from others.