Question: Cognitive Dissonance — Lining Up Our Beliefs and Actions

shatterrealm asked you:

At your convenience, could you talk about cognitive dissonance and why it isn’t ideal? Specifically, why our actions and our beliefs should line up?

Hey my dear friend, I totally love this question.  And I have to give a shout-out to your other blog too, you’re one of my favorites.

As always, please feel free to skip around on this one.

In case we need an easy definition, cognitive dissonance is basically the tension between what we say and what we do.  The wider the gap and the longer we let it exist, the more tension we experience and the more we justify it with crazy half-baked rationalizations.

A classic case of cognitive dissonance is smoking cigarettes.  By now, we all know that smoking is bad for your health — so either 1) a smoker has to quit, or 2) a smoker has to reinforce why they need to keep smoking.

Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theories (1957) showed that “we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony.”  Research even shows that smokers who quit and then relapse back to smoking are even less likely to ever quit again, because they had to increase their excuses to go back to their smoking habit.

All this to say: Cognitive dissonance can actually be a very powerful motivator to quit certain things and start new ones, and it points to a deeper spiritual reality about how things ought to work.  People are not meant to live within the tension of dishonesty for too long.

Integrity is inherently important to people, and those who fail to be accountable are often torn apart in the media or beat themselves up too.  No matter what people are saying about morality today, everyone still wants to keep it real.  Everyone can hear the obvious anvil-thud of rationalizations and we’re all sick of political double-talk.

I actually believe this anger towards hypocrisy points to a very simple human truth: that every single human being, regardless of their beliefs, is measured by the common scale of authenticity.  Somehow an ideal exists that dishonesty is the corruption of something very good, and that even the authentic failure is better than a covered up conspiracy.

We could say this ideal exists because of evolutionary development or social pressure or a morally rewarding culture or careful parenting or a biological directive — but then we’d have to explain why that exists too.

Here’s my guess. 

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