Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Sober Living
The human brain is no less than a work of art. Intricately crafted, and while we have a great handle on what our brains do and how they operate, there is still much to be found out. Addiction, dependence, and many other things are linked to brain chemistry. While there’s still much to be found out, much is known – and understanding what is known currently and how it can affect your life as someone who is trying to become sober will give you a huge advantage when it comes to staying sober or helping your friends through a troubled time.
One thing that we know to be true, is how conflicting information can have a negative effect on one’s brain. Basic logic prevents two conflicting beliefs, values, or behaviors from both being true at the same time. Unfortunately, since our brains aren’t perfect computers, humans can live with two conflicting beliefs in their head for some time, and won’t recognize the conflict until something poignant arises. When the person recognizes the conflict, and doesn’t know which belief to continue to hold, we experience something called cognitive dissonance. This uncomfortability can cause a number of side effects. It can cause a panicked fight or flight response in the moment, it can cause one to simply shut down, not address the conflict at all and continue to live in the world that they existed in before they recognized the conflict, or it can cause the individual to throw both beliefs out regardless of their legitimacy in a vacuum.
Some Examples of Cognitive Dissonance
These are just a few examples of when cognitive dissonance can occur, in each of these scenarios it depends on the person who has the beliefs and what those previously held beliefs are if they will experience cognitive dissonance.
- Political propaganda:Note that this isn’t directed at any one specific scenario, as it happens frequently on both sides of the aisle and in different ways. That said: political propaganda is probably the number one place where cognitive dissonance regularly occurs. A popular politician will commonly say specific things to get elected, perhaps slanderous things, and get his/her following to believe those things. In those moments, the political lemmings will, through no fault of their own, believe what’s said because they may have little to no experience on the matter themselves. Oftentimes, the individuals will never get the hands-on experience that some will, but when one does, and they find that the situation is either more nuanced than they had first believed or just flat out wrong, they experience cognitive dissonance. This is a harder one to overcome. Political beliefs can be deeply ingrained and become part of personalities. People can often get confused and wonder which to believe: their own experience or the long-held beliefs that they have always understood to be true.
- Moving to a new location for a loved one:You might know that this move is bad for you but good for them. In that moment, it’s difficult to decide which is best. Understanding that this is a situation where what’s best for you isn’t in direct contention with what’s best for them, but rather you both combined trying to tackle the situation together will help you overcome the cognitive dissonance initially faced.
- Scheduling regular dental checkups:The dentist can be a scary place. You might know that going to the dentist is good for you but the pain that you may have suffered before would prevent you from reaching out and making an appointment. Facing your own fear and creating an appointment for your own good is, in this case, what overcoming the cognitive dissonance potentially faced looks like.
While these different situations bring up little hesitations and micro cognitive dissonance, it’s important to understand the critical theory behind cognitive dissonance so that you can understand its role in your life and how you can spot it before it becomes a major problem, or what to do when you experience it yourself.
Cognitive Dissonance: The Story
The cognitive dissonance theory was first thought of by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. Like political cognitive dissonance, religious cognitive dissonance is also very common and can have just as many negative repercussions. Festinger observed a situation that arose in a cult, where many of these individuals consistently felt what he would later call cognitive dissonance. Festinger proposed that humans need to feel balanced in their lives, that without this balance they can feel overwhelmed, skinless, vulnerable. This need for balance will sometimes cause individuals to act against what they know to be true, in the pursuit for balance. For instance, in the dentist example, this would be like choosing to never see the dentist because you’ve chosen to believe that because of the pain, the dentist is bad for you.
Of course, this was a much larger scale and much higher stakes than this. The study of the cult had individuals who believed that the entire earth would be destroyed by a flood. When the inevitable flood never occurred, many of the cult members found ways to believe that it did, in fact happen and they created many different examples as to why this was actually a positive outcome instead of anything negative. Some members of the cult continued to move the goalposts and say that the flood was still going to happen in the future. This, of course, is fascinating, because the flood just never happened.
In this example, the people who were part of the cult believed with all of their minds that a flood would happen. When the flood didn’t happen, they had a choice: either give up the entire cult that they had founded their beliefs on, create a new way of life and uproot everything that they had believed in for however long, *or* go on with their lives, not having to change much, and claim that either the flood did happen or that it would still happen and just hasn’t yet.
Now, to someone who is outside of this situation, it seems absolutely ridiculous that someone would choose to believe that a flood wiped out the entire earth when it clearly hasn’t. However, actually being in this situation might yield a different result. We must have sympathy for these individuals, as it’s difficult to completely change one’s life and belief system, so that when it comes time for us to do the same (and believe me it will) others will have sympathy for us, and attempt to help us through it.
Cognitive Dissonance and Behavior
Now, you might be thinking to yourself: I don’t believe that a flood will wipe out the entire planet! I’m not crazy! Therefore, I’m not experiencing any cognitive dissonance currently. While the first two claims may be true, you might still be experiencing cognitive dissonance even right now, even in some small capacity.
Behaviors and attitudes are all affected by cognitive dissonance. Decisions that we make can be heavily influenced by the beliefs that we hold – regardless of their legitimacy. Our brains are constantly making decisions, it’s hard to determine which decisions are influenced by cognitive dissonance and which aren’t. While it’s simply not helpful to live a life that is constantly asking this question regarding every decision that you make, there are still a few behaviors that you might be able to recognize as problematic, and once these behaviors are recognized you can then go on to analyze the belief that perpetuates the behavior.
These behaviors to look out for start with:
- Ignoring facts or research on topics
- Avoiding advice from professionals such as doctors, psychiatrists, etc.
- Hiding your actions or beliefs from others, family or close friends in particular
- Rationalizing actions that you know to be untrue/harmful
- Avoiding conversations or interactions regarding specific topics
If you see these actions in you or someone you love, have a gentle conversation regarding the root of these actions. It could be that they want the help that you can give, and if you are experiencing them you could be doing a great service to yourself.
Cognitive Dissonance and Addiction
Cognitive dissonance plays a major part in addiction. Many internal conflicts arise at different times when an individual is addicted to any substance. Because the strength of the addiction can be so strong, it’s oftentimes such a hard mentality to break out of. Your craving will drive one argument: you need the substance, whatever it is, while your rational thinking will drive the other argument: this addiction is not good for me, it’s putting me in an early grave, hurting my friends, family, etc.
Again, from the outside, it seems easy to make a decision in the direction of kicking your addiction. Addiction is complicated though, and even when someone could beat the physical dependency on their substance, cognitive dissonance may still persist.
Because addiction is different from other beliefs and it affects your brain in such a strong way, most people create defense mechanisms that help with their cognitive dissonance so that they don’t have to address the problem that is at hand. There are many different types of defense mechanisms for these, but if you spot these in yourself understand that it might be time to start really searching inward and asking yourself hard questions and demanding honest answers:
If you find yourself:
- Denying the use of drugs or alcohol
- Rationalizing the use of drugs or alcohol
- Minimalizing the actual amount of drugs or alcohol being taken
Remember that this isn’t a hard and fast list, and that one must take the time to be honest with themselves and, if they find it necessary, start making the changes that need to be made.
If you or a loved one are experiencing cognitive dissonance or drug addiction, come reach out to us at Ecosoberhouse.com. We want to help, so don’t wait! We’re here for you.