When you decide to reclaim internal locus of control in life and engage on the path of ‘consciously creating your own reality,’ it’s pretty much inevitable that at some point you’ll have to deal with a phenomenon known as ‘cognitive dissonance.’
While we usually hear more about its detrimental and self-sabotaging effects, cognitive dissonance is really a neutral phenomenon that carries a huge amount of potential power, which can have an effect on you in either of roughly two directions:
- You can unconsciously let it disempower you and possibly spiral down into harmful denial of self-responsibility…
- Or you can consciously channel its energy in your benefit.
As such, it’s very useful to understand as a concept, in order to gain control over it and leverage it to your advantage.
So let’s dig in…
The term ‘cognitive dissonance’ may sound very highbrow and spawned from the realm of intellectual jargon, but what it comes down to is really very simple:
It basically means that you’re in two ‘minds’ at the same time, where one ‘mind’ is contradicting the other.
Here are some official definitions of cognitive dissonance pulled from various sources:
- “Cognitive dissonance is the mental conflict that people experience when they are presented with evidence that their beliefs or assumptions are wrong.”
- “When two simultaneously held cognitions are inconsistent, this will produce a state of cognitive dissonance. Because the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, the person will strive to reduce it by changing their beliefs.”
- “An emotional state set up when two simultaneously held attitudes or cognitions are inconsistent, or when there is a conflict between belief and overt behavior. The resolution of the conflict is assumed to serve as a basis for attitude change, in that belief patterns are generally modified as to be consistent with behavior.”
So based on these definitions, let me translate and summarize the nature of the concept in simple terms:
- Cognitive dissonance manifests as a state of mental and emotional unease or disharmony, which we experience as an uncomfortable feeling of tension.
- It’s brought up when an attitude or conviction is contradicted by experience, information, and/or behavior.
- Our minds then insist that we eliminate the dissonance, by somehow resolving the contradiction that’s causing it.
So how do we tend to resolve such a contradiction?
Well, it turns out that for most people, their first inclination is to do so by means of self-deception, in that they justify their existing attitude and/or behavior so they avoid feeling ‘wrong’ or ‘at fault.’
In the words of Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith:
“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”
- Most people either dismiss any information and experience that point out the fallacy of their current beliefs and/or the futility of their current attitude and behavior as untrue without further investigation…
- And/or they justify their self-sabotaging or ineffective behavior and beliefs by concocting some rationalization for it.
So as you’ll understand, seeing through this mechanism and taking conscious control over it as much as possible is extremely relevant to our ability to gain a sensible degree of internal locus of control in life without sabotaging ourselves.
So to make sure you get a clear idea of the concept, let’s go through a few examples and illustrations…
Examples & Illustrations
Example 1 – A ‘Dilbert’-comic explaining the general idea:
So are you beginning to get an idea of the mental effect cognitive dissonance can have?
Either way, it’ll become clearer as we progress, so let’s move on to the next example…
Example 2 – Aliens:
The late Leon Festinger was a prominent social psychologist who was responsible for the development of the theory of cognitive dissonance.
In 1954 he and two colleagues infiltrated a cult group that followed Marion Keech, a woman from Chicago who claimed to have been contacted by ‘aliens’ that told her that a great flood would bring an end to the world before dawn on December 21st, 1954.
Her followers left their jobs, educational pursuits, and families… even gave away their money and possessions… as they believed they would be taken away in a spacecraft at midnight on December 20th, a few hours before the disaster was due to strike.
Festinger and his colleagues joined the group, because they believed the situation would provide a perfect example of cognitive dissonance when the flood and the spaceship failed to manifest.
And indeed, dawn broke as normal on December 21st.
Obviously, the fact that the aliens and the flood failed to materialize brought about unpleasant, stressful mental conditions (i.e. cognitive dissonance) in group members. After all, their belief in both the aliens and the flood clashed emotionally with the fact that neither appeared.
So in the face of these unanticipated developments, they were basically left with two alternatives:
- They either had to accept the fact that they had been duped, which would resolve their mental tension by bringing the conflicting belief and experience together as a whole.
- Or they had to find a means to explain what happened in a way that would preserve their original belief and support the validity of their behavior.
Here’s what happened:
- Some members acknowledged they had been fooled and left the group to get back to building and living their lives…
- But strikingly, the majority stayed, and even became more enthusiastic and passionate in their cause… despite the fact that the prophecy that led them into the whole ordeal in the first place didn’t even happen.
I stress again that the latter group included the majority. Here’s how they solved their dissonance:
They rearranged their relationship to their belief and behavior by saying that the flood didn’t occur because their small group had spread so much light during the night, that God had saved the world from destruction.
You might recognize this type of response from the adherers of the various ‘end-of-the-world-prophecies’ that we keep hearing about… or as being similar to the logic of Ernie (Bert’s friend of Sesame Street fame):
Example 3 – Ernie’s Logic:
Take a look at this video: (<– The first part sets the context, but the second part, starting at about 45 seconds into the video, is the part most relevant to our discussion here…)
Now let me recap what’s going on here in the context of this article:
- Ernie explains the reason of his unusual behavior of keeping a banana in his ear to Bert as having the aim of “chasing away the alligators.”
- Bert then decides to make Ernie aware of the futility of his actions, by pointing out the reality that there are no alligators in Sesame Street.
- The conflict between Ernie’s behavior and the new information conveyed by Bert would then create cognitive dissonance in the mind of Ernie (<– although we’re no direct witnesses to that process). After all, if there are no alligators, then there’s no use in chasing them way, especially not through the dubious means of sticking a banana in the ear.
- However, when presented with this information, Ernie doesn’t change his behavior by taking the banana out of his ear, as Bert expected (and probably hoped for)… Instead, he responds differently:
He justifies his existing behavior and belief, stating that the act of holding a banana in his ear is doing a particularly good job at chasing away the alligators, thus providing us with another entertaining illustration of what cognitive dissonance tends to do to us.
Now let’s explore another example to increase your understanding some more…
Example 4 – Alternative Healing:
If there’s one field with plenty of experience in dealing with cognitive dissonance, it’s the orthodox branch of mainstream medical science.
Often riddled by what it can’t explain on the basis of its established way of thinking, it regularly puts on display its profound inability and/or common disinterest in processing new and unwanted information.
For example, if a patient happens to recover using some alternative therapy, the medical establishment often responds accordingly by simply explaining it away:
- Either the patient must have been wrongly diagnosed in the first place…
- Or the patient must be responding to some prior orthodox medical treatment (even if it was given years ago or if the patient is undergoing spontaneous remission).
Basically, the medical establishment accepts anything but the fact that an alternative cure or treatment can have actual results, because it has already decided in advance that it’s a ‘quack’ that doesn’t fit its limited concept of what’s possible, and therefore it can’t possibly be effective.
Now let’s explore our final example, which will get us to the point that I want to make in this article…
Example 5 – Smoking:
Another common example relates to the habit of smoking.
Now just to be clear:
- I’m not describing this to pass judgment on anyone who does or doesn’t smoke.
- Instead, the scenario described below is merely a clear illustration of the two different directions in which cognitive dissonance can steer your attitude and behavior.
- So while the scenario here pertains to the habit of smoking in particular, the underlying principle it conveys, applies to many other contexts.
With that said, check out the scheme below and how it illustrates two possible responses to the unpleasant tension of cognitive dissonance:
So let’s say you’re a regular smoker and you’re presented with new information that says it’s unhealthy. As the scheme depicts, this gives you two general choices to respond:
- One: you can decide to quit smoking. In this case, cognitive dissonance serves as the driving force to change your behavior in the light of new knowledge, namely that smoking is unhealthy and it’s better to break the habit and quit.
- Alternatively, you can find an escape route and give yourself a justification to maintain your current behavior (i.e. smoking), based on the perception that the evidence that it’s not healthy is not conclusive. In this case, cognitive dissonance cements your current attitude and behavior in more firmly.
And this brings us to the most important thing to take from these examples…
The Driving Force of Cognitive Dissonance
The examples discussed above illustrate how cognitive dissonance is not a ‘bad’ thing in itself. While its feeling of tension may not be particularly pleasant, the phenomenon itself is neutral.
It’s how you respond to it that matters. Because your response will determine whether it will have ‘empowering’ or ‘disempowering’ effects on you.
As such, cognitive dissonance indicates a pre-eminent opportunity for introspection and being honest with yourself, and to consciously decide what type of response will serve you best. And that’s where your power lies.
In this context, cognitive dissonance can roughly steer you in two directions:
- A destructive direction, implying external locus of control, which usually cycles into disempowerment…
- A constructive action, implying internal locus of control, which usually leads to consistently increasing empowerment.
Let’s explore both directions more thoroughly, so that we can make sure that we keep ourselves from cycling into disempowerment, and instead put ourselves into a consistent flow of ever-increasing empowerment.
A Destructive Spiral Cycling Into Disempowerment
In this case, we place responsibility anywhere but within ourselves. It’s probably safe to say that all of us have fallen for this destructive effect at some point in our lives, including yours truly. Let’s face it: we’ve all played the ‘blame game.’
And sadly, this is how most people deal with the unpleasant experience of cognitive dissonance. As a kneejerk reaction, they attempt to retain their original self-identity, by justifying their current attitude and behavior. Anything goes, as long as they’re not ‘at fault.’
But how much does such a reaction actually serve us? Think about it:
If you’re like most people reading this, you’re looking for ways to make changes in life circumstances that you’re not (entirely) satisfied with.
But in that context, accepting and admitting that we were somehow involved in shaping those circumstances (<– thus acknowledging that we might have been wrong or at fault, and succumbing to the potential loss of ‘status’ or perception of ‘being perfect’ that might come with doing so) can be an unpleasant prospect in itself.
So instead of stepping into our power by taking responsibility, we’ll be more inclined to concoct whatever justification for our current attitude and behavior we can come up with to avoid feeling ‘wrong’.
And thus, whenever something ‘bad’ or ‘unpleasant’ happens (or whenever we do something ‘bad’ or ‘unpleasant’) we quickly tend to make up excuses, such as:
- “It was you who made me react like that!”
- “It’s not my fault!”
- “They deserved it!”
We may get very creative in coming up with such excuses, but there’s usually a common denominator to detect among them:
- Whatever we come up with hardly ever has anything to do with us, but is usually all about some other reason that turns out to be the fault of someone or something else…
- Or it’s just ‘the way it is’ or ‘the way we are,’ and we’re powerless to make a change.
Now here’s what so destructive about that:
- First, by freezing reality into a static state, we implicitly exclude the very possibility that any change is possible in the first place… while both reality and we ourselves are really in constant flux and dynamically changing all the time.
- And secondly, even if we wouldn’t do that, by passing the buck on responsibility we still implicitly ignore our own power to change the situation, because we’re placing that power anywhere but within ourselves.
After all, if we had no role whatsoever in creating it, or if ‘the way we are’ is set in stone, then we can’t possibly do anything to improve the situation, can we?
That’s the victim mentality in a nutshell. In other words: we’re implying external locus of control, i.e. being at the mercy of the whims of circumstance and/or the hands of destiny.
But that’s not all… There are in fact more far-reaching ramifications of this attitude:
By pushing off responsibility, we also block the process of mental and emotional healing of the very underlying causes for why we’re inclined to respond in the way described above in the first place (<– as was explained in this article).
Without such healing, it’s likely that we keep recreating self-fulfilling prophecies, where we keep running into situations that evoke similar discomfort as the one we keep refusing to take responsibility for.
Meanwhile, as we constantly point away from ourselves for the cause of this discomfort every time it arises, we keep (implicitly) reaffirming our own victimhood.
And so the best we can hope for in that case is a so-called ‘deus ex machina,’ i.e. some external rescue that’s unlikely to ever come, and we implicitly consider ourselves powerless to do anything about it.
And for most people, that’s exactly what they’re trying to ‘manifest:’
They set their sights at some kind of ‘rescue’ that would alleviate an uncomfortable tension they consistently or even temporarily experience in life… such as a bag of money, the infamous unexpected check, a fancy car to up their social status… that kind of thing.
Now don’t get me wrong, because I’m not saying that it’s impossible to do so…
It’s just that through the very act of setting our sights on manifesting something we see as a ‘rescue,’ we implicitly affirm external locus of control, and thus subtly cement our own victimhood under the guise of becoming the causative ‘manifesting’ force in our lives.
Fortunately, there’s another, more constructive way to deal with cognitive dissonance…
An Upward Spiral of Increasing Empowerment
In this case, whenever cognitive dissonance occurs, we simply take responsibility. That is: we claim our power to deliberately choose our response.
We acknowledge that impulsively and reactively looking for blame and pointing out all the things and people that are ‘wrong’ and ‘at fault’ is a vast waste of energy, and that it’s far more constructive to deliberately decide what type of response will serve us best in the situation at hand.
That way, we leverage the urge to resolve your cognitive dissonance as a driving force to recognize the unpleasant experiences for what they are: mere reflections of deeper, perhaps unconscious disharmony in your system that requires harmonization. After all:
To accept a trait or situation, no matter how unpleasant, is to have the power to change it. By doing so, the dissonance (and the accompanying desire to resolve it) becomes a tool we can use in life… an instrument on our path of evolution and growth into the person we’ve set out to become.
From there, we can deal with the inner disharmony (<– as we do for example in the Crack Your Egg Program), and then get back to deliberately and consistently embodying the values, attitudes, and behaviors that we want to see reflected in our lives instead (<– as covered this in earlier articles, like this one).
And while doing so, we can remain open to all possibility, as opposed to becoming fixated on one particular means of ‘rescue.’
That’s the way to deal with cognitive dissonance constructively. And it’s crucial to cultivate such an attitude if we want to build a sense of flow, momentum, power, livelihood, passion, inner peace, and contentment in life.
And all you need for that is a slight shift in perspective…
A ‘New’ Perspective
An important aspect of overcoming the potential disempowering effects from cognitive dissonance is to simply realize that it’s okay not to be ‘perfect’ (whatever that is), that it’s okay to be ‘wrong,’ and that it’s okay to make mistakes.
Whenever that does happen, and you realize it is so, there is no room for excuses and justifications if you want to be ‘at cause’ in your life.
As said, to accept a trait or situation is to have the power to change it.
True enough, even with such self-honesty, cognitive dissonance is still likely to occur in life… However, it no longer demands that you concoct an ever-changing story to protect your self-image of being ‘perfect’ or ‘just the way you think you are.’
Instead, you can celebrate your freedom from ignorance: take the experience, and move on.
Sure, we’ve all been ‘had’ some time… and it’s all for goodness sake. It’s called ‘experience’, the nature of life itself.
We live in a world that (by design) challenges us emotionally and morally to the extreme, and we experience this reality through ‘bodies’ with endless programs of thoughts, feelings, and behavioral urges that are constantly being triggered and played out.
So yes, when you decide to take matters in your own hands and start taking deliberate steps to transform your experience… then chances are that life will present you with challenges as part of that process. (<– There’s a particularly empowering perspective on this described in this article.)
But if you keep seeing your life as some random result that’s always the fault of other people or circumstances, you disregard your own power and responsibility (i.e. your ability to respond and do something about it)… and you’ll impulsively protect the self-identity and attitudes that got you into living the very experience that you’re not entirely happy with to start with (even if that happened unconsciously).
By doing so, you subtly perpetuate the same experience, because you constantly maintain your self-delusion that your current life experience doesn’t have anything to do with your own inner state. From your perspective, it all remains because of something or someone else.
Thus, while the prospect of having to accept your responsibility in creating this experience may not be the most comfortable one at first, the long-term ramifications of failing or refusing to do so will be much more discomforting than taking the constructive route right away… because chances are you’ll keep having to deal with re-occurring, similar tension over and over again.
True enough, your thoughts and feelings about yourself and about life in general may have been imposed and manipulated by education, media, religion, experiences in life, misinformation and misunderstandings on the topic of the ‘Law of Attraction,’ and so on.
So yes, in this way, other people and ‘outer’ circumstances may have played their part in creating and/or perpetuating your beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and thus the nature of your life experience…
However, that doesn’t change the fact that you are still the one holding on to those thoughts and beliefs. Pointing blame doesn’t get you anywhere. It is what it is now, so the real question is:
What are you going to do about it?
That’s why it’s important to make a crucial distinction:
It’s not may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility. You have the ability to consciously choose your response without having to succumb to the whims of circumstance or surrender to the hands of ‘destiny.’
For now, let me give you some steps to practice…
Steps To Practice
As explained, cognitive dissonance is a powerful phenomenon that’s in many ways inevitable. But it does present us with a choice:
- We can either let its power overwhelm us and trigger us into concocting whatever rationalization would preserve our existing self-image, attitude, and behavior (and thus cement our existing patterns more firmly)…
- Or we can leverage its power to our advantage in the process of growing more powerful as a person with true internal locus of control.
That choice is yours. And to make it consciously, ask yourself whenever discomfort occurs:
What type of response would serve me best in this situation?
Here’s a suggested approach in line with our earlier ‘Stand Your Ground’-article:
- You can treat the very sign of stress (dissonance) as a signal pointing at something inside you that you need to let go of. You’ll have to ‘read’ and ‘interpret’ these challenges as reflections of your own inner imbalances, and take them on as opportunities to ‘crack your egg.’
- As such, your initial response to it could be something along the lines of: “Copy that, loud and clear.”
- Subsequently, you can follow up with appropriate action to bring about change… either in the situation directly… or in yourself, so that you’ll either be inclined to respond differently in the future, and/or might never get into the kind of situations that triggered that type of dissonance to start with.
And besides that:
- As we’ve learned, when we hold two opposing ideas in our mind, our minds will be more inclined to reactively change our beliefs to match our behavior, as opposed to the other way around.
- So while all we keep hearing about is making changes in your mind and beliefs first, so that your actions and results in life will follow (an approach that certainly has a reasonable degree of merit)… it’s extremely valuable to amend your practice with the opposite approach…:
- Start behaving the way you want to believe.
Given what we’ve learned, our minds will be inclined to change our beliefs in reaction to doing so, in order to have a supporting self-image and logical ‘reason why’ for that behavior.
As such, your attitudes and beliefs will shift swiftly, and often turn out to not be as fixed and inert as we’re often led to believe.
This is in fact a highly significant missing link in by far the great majority of contemporary self-help approaches (at least at the time of writing this).
But without including this in your practice, you’ll be inclined to wait until everything feels perfect mentally and emotionally before taking any kind of constructive action to make things happen in life.
And as we all know, we hardly ever feel as though we’ve reached that point… and we usually never will if we don’t amend our practice as described above.
Thus, the wait tends to turn into a perpetual one (<– and probably one for which the resulting ‘cognitive dissonance’ will have us explain it away as something along the lines of: “You see, none of this stuff works… It’s all a bunch of BS… I just can’t change… I’m powerless after all… etc.”).
Now you know what you can do about that:
Keep this practice up consistently. It will seriously accelerate your results in the process of changing your beliefs, and your life along with it.
You’ll notice your experience improving by the day… just like your inner sense of power and internal locus of control will keep growing exponentially.
But nothing will happen if you merely wait…
So just take the steps. And in the process, leverage Leverage your new understanding of cognitive dissonance to Crack Your Egg!