I catch myself experiencing cognitive dissonance all the time. It’s a hot topic in my wellness industry, and an even bigger focus when it comes to world events right now.

In general, cognitive dissonance is when we hold 2 related, but contradictory thoughts. According to Leon Festinger, a psychologist who developed this idea in 1957, he advised that 2 ideas can be either “consonant” or “dissonant”.

It’s taken me some time to unpack this fully, but in simple terms, consonant ideas logically flow from one another, whereas dissonant ideas oppose one another.   As cases of COVID are reappearing, this might be a good example to illustrate this concept.

So, if a person who believes that the COVID-19 pandemic is real and wants to protect others from being infected, they might choose to wear a mask when out in public. This is consonance. 

But if that same person believes the COVID-19 pandemic is real but refuses to wear a mask, their values and behaviours would contradict each other. This is dissonance.

The idea is that the dissonance between 2 contradictory ideas, or between a belief and a behaviour, creates discomfort, and this is more intense when a person holds many dissonant views with ideas that are important to them.

And what do we do with this discomfort?

That all depends on how much it is impacting our lives. My dad was the forklift driver for the confectionary companies ‘Lifesavers’, and ‘Nestlé’. The amount of sugar we were allowed to consume makes my heart palpitate and I’m so grateful I didn’t develop diabetes.

Because of my active lifestyle and fast metabolism at the time, I never associated sugar as being “bad”, and ages later, when I suffered from migraines and hormonal imbalances for years, I refused to believe that my multitude of sugary sins could be correlated.

In my social work and private practice, I have also worked with many clients who have justified their patterns of behaviour or addictions by claiming “it’s their only vice”. I did the same. I still do when I know something within me needs to shift, but I’m either not quite ready, or haven’t found the right support.   

In more baleful examples, I have seen how a mother of a forceful perpetrator will speak of her “sweet boy”, and then outline the victim’s flaws in a bid to justify unspeakable violent actions that were carried out.   

Another example can show up with smoking.

Conflict: Many people smoke even though they know it is harmful to their health. The magnitude of the dissonance will be higher in people who highly value their health.

Cognitive dissonance: A person may dislike the physical side effects of smoking but feel the act of smoking is relaxing and helps in other ways, such as alleviating their stress.

Resolving cognitive dissonance: They may use nicotine replacement therapy, such as gum or patches, to feel the effects of nicotine with fewer adverse effects, and this could support their bid to cut down or quit altogether.   The current war between the state of Israel and Hamas is another example. One side will say that Hamas needs to be destroyed and will justify the killing of 30 000 civilians, mostly women and children (who were not even old enough to have voted for Hamas), while maiming, bombing, striking and displacing thousands more.

They will justify the annexing of more land by stating that they have the right to defend themselves as the occupying state. While the state of Israel certainly has the right to exist, their government and army’s retaliation has surpassed the wrongful actions of Hamas from October 7.

I believe that cognitive dissonance can also be a tool for personal and social change. Drawing a person’s attention to the dissonance between their behaviour and their values may increase their awareness of the inconsistency and empower them to act.

According to an article on Medical News today, our defence mechanisms tend to fall into 3 categories:

Avoiding: People may avoid or ignore people or situations that remind them of the dissonance, dissuade people from talking about it, or distract themselves with consuming tasks.

Delegitimizing: This involves undermining evidence of the dissonance. A person could do this by discrediting the person, group, or situation that highlighted the dissonance. For example, they might say it is untrustworthy or biased. On social media, trolls will say “you’re not educated enough about this”.

Limiting impact: This involves limiting the discomfort of cognitive dissonance by belittling its importance. A person may do this by claiming the behaviour is rare or a one-off event, or by providing rational arguments to convince themselves or others that the behaviour is OK.

During hard times, urging people to be positive doesn’t boost their resilience, but only denies their painful reality. In some cases, good vibes can be seen as toxic positivity or spiritual bypass.

Instead, we need to feel steady through all the unpredictable emotional rollercoaster of emotions, as strength won’t come from sweet words, or insincere smiles. Ultimately, it comes from feeling supported.

Until we cross paths this year, I am sending you lots of love,

Patty Kikos

P.S. I interviewed my friend Jack who is a counsellor that supports carers. Unlike my social work background, he is a psychotherapist who also specialises in equine therapy. His gentle compassion shines through in a beautiful way, and we also have a mutual love and appreciation for learning languages. In fact, he married a French woman and they speak to their daughter in French which he says is a far cry from the small town in NSW that he originally hails from. Listen here

Images by Candice