Cognitive Dissonance (Part II)

Part II: Overcoming Cognitive Dissonance

Several days ago a Friend of mine who runs a martial arts business posted a poignant piece on the psychology and the consequences of quitting. My Friend was not talking about quitting a destructive habit such as compulsive drinking, gambling or drugs but on the perennial challenge of seeing new students quit within two weeks of signing up.

The truth is that quitting is a hell of a lot easier than sticking if the activity is difficult but beneficial. This is why the majority of candidates on the BUDS program for the Navy SEALS bomb out in the first 48 hours. They figure to themselves “this is harder than I thought”, “why don’t I quit now and save me further pain”. The training Staff are experts in picking up doubt and mental weaknesses and pounce at any sign of it. They actively encourage the candidates to quit, to ring the bell and throw in the towel. The SEALS want men who are mentally and emotionally resilient and who stay the course. Physical toughness is only about 30-40% of BUDS. Mental and emotional strength is the key to getting through.

The opposite is true for things that are seemingly bad for us or contrary to our cause. These things seem extremely hard to quit particularly if the habit is addictive or reinforced in any way. Drinking and taking drugs for example is extremely difficult to quit despite the obvious harm they do us. If anyone had asked me which would be easier, quitting smoking and drinking or getting through something like BUDS I would have said BUDS. Most of us want to quit but cannot find the mental, emotional and spiritual resilience to last the distance. We relapse when we try on will power alone.

The Serial Quitter

I can sympathize with my Friend for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was a serial quitter and know all about it. I have taken up a number of activities and made up excuses and quit. Cross Fit, Kickboxing, Gym memberships and even martial arts. Those were sporting and recreational pursuits. I also gave up on jobs, career paths, studies, relationships, sobriety, life….The excuses were less than adequate but it all boiled down to two things; fear of commitment and intractability.

For some reason I have always feared commitment. Most things I ever did I did so because I felt under pressure in some way. When it came to applying effort under my own steam voluntarily and without obligation I would find something else to do and eventually give it away. This was because it was easier to default to the softer option. I also imagined that I was not good enough, or I looked stupid or having stumbled and failed once I decided what was the point. In this state a person suffers a crisis of self confidence and fails to commit. Alcohol or drugs provides a convenient remedy as it dulls our sense of accountability and reassures us that we are better than we actually are.


Intractability is being obstinate and difficult to manage. Alcoholics generally have a rebellious streak and we are rooted in our flawed belief system. Self discipline and the ability to commit are concomitant in sticking with a program of recovery, martial arts or BUDS selection. Alcoholism on the other hand tends to throw self discipline to the wind as soon as the first drink is ingested.

The mind set is reinforced in Alcoholics to reject opinions or information that is contrary to our world view. We may be brilliant when we want to be but the second something tips us over or someone gets in our way, we throw the whole lot in, stamp our feet and quit. We proclaim that “they don’t know that they are talking about”. Our only Master is Booze, she is the one we ultimately take orders from.

In a Dissonant World

In today’s society we are increasingly left feeling isolated, in conflict and under tension. Technology dominates every aspect of our lives. Morality seems to have fallen by the way-side or at least replaced by a type of righteous political correctness which stifles discourse and counter views. Society has become polarized. People are feeling less connected within the community and despite the prevalence of social media are feeling increasingly marginalized. This environment has given rise to an unprecedented level of cognitive dissonance in society. Fortunately there are ways to break free from it:

1. Question your views.

In a critical and objective manner dissect your belief system. Challenges assumptions and question everything. Ask if you are not holding on to beliefs that are flawed. Do you have your hand in a Monkey Trap?

The Monkey Trap requires a monkey to place it hand inside a box with a small opening large enough for a hand to fit through but not a balled fist. The Monkey will reach for the treat inside the box and clutching on to it is unable to free itself. If it could only let go of the treat is would be free. This is how some of us hold on to our ideas and prejudices. We convince ourselves of a reality that does not exist and we hold ourselves to that despite evidence to the contrary. Seek evidence and reject what does not hold true.

In the case of Martial Arts, the belief that “I can’t do this” is self perpetuated by quitting. If we break down a problem in to smaller portions and focus on achieving milestones the challenge does not seem so momentous. With a change of perception we entertain the possibility we can achieve. As they say in AA, “take it one day at a time”, the miracle may happen tomorrow.

2. Get out of your Comfort Zone.

Trying new things is absolutely essential to growing as a human being. Have you ever observed a child? A two year old will explore everywhere it can, pick things up and make a mess. She is learning at a phenomenal rate about her world and place in it. We never stop learning and the best way to keep growing as a person is to expose ourselves to new things that are outside of our comfort zone.

The British SAS has advice for candidates on its selection course; “embrace the suck”.  They reason that the cold, hunger, fatigue, uncertainty and exhaustion are guaranteed so might as well embrace it. The course is undertaken in a manner where the candidates never know what is happening or going to happen. If one approaches the course with a “Can Do” attitude rather than a fearful one they are already half way through.  It is a mind-game. With practice and perseverance we arrive at confidence that we can do this. Start off with a “Can Do” attitude.

We all define our “own impossible”. If our mind can imagine something then its possible that it can be done. It is about convincing ourselves that we can take the first step and put one foot in front of the other. Eventually we get to our destination if we keep going.

3. Simplify

One of the reasons we stall in recovery or in any other challenge is because we often over complicate it. Most challenges look complicated because we frame it that way in our mind and the easiest option is to abandon the idea. We also seem to use the word “But” to excess. For example, “I want to stop drinking BUT I’ll lose my Friends” or “I would go to Train BUT [insert excuse here]”. We often complain that people get in our way when most of the time it is our own selves that sabotage our efforts.

In every decision there is an opportunity cost. Only the person can decide if it is worth it? Would I rather be sober or get wasted with Friend? Is sitting at home on Face Book instead of attending training a worthwhile use of my time? All we need to do is ask ourselves what is more important; there is no need to complicate. Decide and choose that. If there are obstacles that complicate your decisions either work around them or manage them out. Yes, this includes “Friends” that pull you away from your goals.

4. Keep you eye on the Goal

Visualize the person you want to be. See yourself standing there in a year’s time having accomplished the goals that you set. Keep that image in your mind and if required draw up a battle plan to get there. In that plan set a strategy, determine the resources you will need and set achievable milestones along the way. Keep the Plan fluid and adaptive so it can to survive the unforeseen. Just because you have a plan does not mean that life will come along and try to upset things.

If you stick to your (rough) plan and keep track of progress you will see improvement over time. For the last 6 months I have stuck with a fitness regime which has resulted in significant gains. Daily application and commitment to the program has been the formula. At first I made excuses not to workout but reminded myself of the reasons I was doing it.

Self Discipline and effort are two Jedi traits that are required to keep on track in any endeavor including sustained recovery. Remember that all you really control is the effort that you put in. An Olympian can train as hard as humanly possible but that does not guarantee a Gold Medal at the Games. If we achieve our goals in the time and manner we set, great, if not we should still recognize the effort we put in.

Luke Skywalker suffered Cognitive Dissonance on Dagobah while was being trained by Yoda. The effort and time needed to get through the trials and the study to becoming a Jedi were obviously more than he was willing to invest at that time. The need to be Jedi conflicted with his need to “be elsewhere”. Luke Skywalker lacked patience and the tension forced him to leave his training early and confront Darth Vader before he was ready…Which brings me to the last point:

5. Is it Worth It?

My Friend has taught Martial Arts for 40 years and has been in countless confrontations which he managed to defuse or resolve using skills drawn from decades of training. On quitting he asks his students one basic question to help with their Cognitive Dissonance; he asks “is it worth it?” The price of not learning Martial Arts might mean that they do not acquire the skill set and discipline to confront an attacker trying to kill or rape them. The price of learning Martial Arts will mean years of dedication, hard work, pain and sacrifice.

When we put it that way it often seems more stark. In the context of life and death it does not get much more clear. Some people need more proof than others.

Do I pick up a drink and most likely relapse in to active alcoholism or do I work the program?

Every one of us must decide what we value and act in accordance with that. No one can force us, we must decide ourselves.

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