In 1957, the scientist Leon Festinger came up with a psychological theory that says we are at our healthiest when there is consistency among our: values, beliefs, feelings, behaviors, and the world. And that when there is not enough consistency, or when there is too much dissonance, a person will feel discomfort. Festinger called this discomfort ‘cognitive dissonance’. Festinger believed that most people strive to reduce cognitive dissonance by rationalization and to avoid cognitive dissonance by avoiding contradictory information.
Rationalization is a defence mechanism in which a person justifies and/or explains their controversial behavior (or thought, feeling, etc.) in a seemingly rational way despite the person not knowing or avoiding the true explanation of the behavior. For example, a person who goes back to smoking after previously deciding to quit may tell herself that she now realizes the risk of developing lung cancer is not as high as she had previously thought. This is a seemingly rational explanation of her behavior, but in reality, the true explanation may be that her addiction has overpowered her.
The second way people reduce cognitive dissonance is by avoiding contradictory information altogether. This is also called ‘confirmation bias’. Confirmation bias happens not only when a person avoids contradictory information but also when they interpret ambiguous evidence as confirming their existing attitudes and beliefs.
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Festinger’s theory shows that people need enough consistency between their attitudes and behaviors in order to achieve internal harmony. Although cognitive dissonance can never be fully eliminated and nor should it be. Shrinking cognitive dissonance is an important way to live a better and more fulfilled life.
According to experts, the best way to shrink cognitive dissonance is by learning how to cope with self-contradictions. This is why I think that realizing (and reminding oneself!) that the unchanging, permanent ego is merely a useful illusion, dramatically helps to shrink cognitive dissonance. Realizing that there is an “I” that is observing Me is a mental exercise that sheds light on the contradiction of thinking of yourself as merely the sum total of your mental life. Who is the “I” that is observing Me if Me is all there is?
I think that coming to terms with this large self-contradiction can help us with more everyday self-contradictions. Self-contradictions like struggling with giving up a bad habit and still thinking of yourself as a powerful and self-assured. Or not having achieved societal markers of success and still thinking of yourself as a success.
And also, the self-contradiction of having acted negatively in the past, but still thinking of yourself as a good person in the present. Spiritual development helps you to remember that you contain multitudes. And this expansion of your consciousness will help you to shrink the cognitive dissonance you may be experiencing today.