In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance
is the mental discomfort
(psychological stress) experienced by a person when confronted with new information that contradicts said beliefs, ideals, and values.
Cognitive-dissonance is just one of many biases that work in our everyday lives. We don’t like to believe that we may be wrong, so we may limit our intake of new information or thinking about things in ways that don’t fit within our pre-existing beliefs. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.”
We also don’t like to second-guess our choices, even if later they are proven wrong or unwise. By second-guessing ourselves, we suggest we may not be as wise or as right as we’ve led ourselves to believe. This may lead us to commit to a particular course of action and become insensitive to and reject alternative, perhaps better, courses that come to light. That’s why many people seek to avoid or minimize regret in their lives, and seek “closure” — imposing a definitive end to an event or relationship. It reduces the possibility of future cognitive dissonance.
Self-awareness seems to be a key to understanding how and when cognitive dissonance may play a role in your life. If you find yourself justifying or rationalizing decisions or behaviors that you’re not quite clear you firmly believe in, that might be a sign that cognitive dissonance is at work. If your explanation for something is, “Well, that’s the way I’ve always done it or thought about it,” that may also be a sign. Socrates extolled that “An unexamined life is not worth living.” In other words, challenge and be skeptical of such answers if you find yourself falling back on them.
A part of that self awareness that may help in dealing with cognitive dissonance is to examine the commitments and decisions we make in our lives. If the resolution of cognitive dissonance means that we move forward with a commitment and spring into action, making us feel better, maybe the dissonance was trying to tell us something. Maybe the decision or commitment wasn’t as right for us as we initially thought, even if it means overcoming our “no second-guessing” bias and making a different decision. Sometimes we’re just plain wrong. Admitting it, apologizing if need be, and moving forward can save us a lot of time, mental energy and hurt feelings.