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Exploring the Dissonance Between Values and Actions

Explore the intricate dance of values and actions in the human psyche. Navigating cognitive dissonance for self-discovery.

We have all, at one point or another, spoken of the virtues of wellbeing and healthy living yet behaved in a manner that is in complete contradiction of that value. We know smoking or excessive drinking is harmful to our health, but many of us continue to put our health in peril, regardless of the known consequences. We consciously work against our own values because we give in to the feeling of satiation and feeling good, finding reasons to circumvent what we may hold dear to us. How is it that our values become our vices?

Sometimes our inner incongruity is not as obvious as choosing wine over water. We all have principles we choose to live by yet we still flout them thoughtlessly. We protest at dinner parties at how we are handing over all our personal details to the government, fiercely protective of our privacy, yet freely post our lives on Facebook or cultivate unknown and unvetted followers on Instagram who are privy to our private lives.

Then there are the subtle duplicities in our character which manifest in ways we may not realise at a conscious level. For instance, we may revile and deride child labour practices yet drool over and still purchase designer brands that are manufactured in sweatshops in India or China. Over and over in our lives we inadvertently and deliberately fail to practise what we preach.

This paradoxical behaviour is called cognitive dissonance, and we are seeing a greater prevalence of this psychological phenomenon in recent years. Many of us are in conflict with our values and how we live our lives. Nowadays, with so many distractions and choices, the increased need for instant gratification, the desire for approval or acceptance mixed with higher anxiety and lower resilience, we are more prone to not being as aligned with our values. As a result we stray from the desired or optimum conceptualisation of self. We give in, we give up, we rationalise and we minimise the importance of our beliefs, moving the goalposts on our principles.

We effectively have become less accountable to ourselves. The downside of this is that we become more fragmented in our being and resort to unhelpful behaviours and problematic coping mechanisms. We know what matters to us but invariably allow ourselves to be distracted or choose to suspend our values, no matter how uncomfortable or distressed it makes us feel.

A cog in the dissonance

In theoretical terms, cognitive dissonance postulates that a psychological tension or strain is created when an individual’s behaviour is not congruent or consistent with their beliefs. What is hoped is that when this is brought to the attention of the individual they will seek to reconcile their behaviours according to their beliefs. Others may interrogate their beliefs to see if they are still valid and useful, but the process is always about seeking integration of the self.

Now, of course achieving psychological consistency is easier said than done. And often we are not even conscious of the incongruence of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Why is it that we go back to lovers or partners where there was conflict or even abuse? While there are many extenuating circumstances and reasons for this behaviour, it can also be said that we love the ones who hurt us. This is a painful contradiction, yet it happens all the time in our interpersonal dynamics.

Coming back to the self, finding psychological unity is difficult when we are dogged with fears, loss and not being able to commit to our convictions. This intrapersonal dialogue is very challenging at times.
We all talk about climate change and saving the environment, yet we still jump on planes because we covet that island holiday or yearn to ski on the best mountains in the world. Even climate scientists break their own rules. Our desires and aspirations thwart our principles and beliefs.

Whether we are longing to make a difference that could be life-changing or something less momentous, it is critical that we endeavour to see things through. Developing intrapersonal skills such as self-discipline, intentional behaviour, checking in with your values and practising delayed gratification in order to manage these internal incongruities is a lifelong process, but the only pathway to integration.
Our values and beliefs reflect our true self or the emergence of our true self, so when we act in a contradictory way, we move away from realising that aim. We inevitably become a lesser version of ourselves, and sometimes we move into a state of crisis or panic when we let ourselves down.

Internal conflict resolution

Combating cognitive dissonance is not merely about discipline or drive, but certainly they help. It differs from goal-setting in that it is about defining who we are and what we want to be. Cognitive dissonance prevents us from becoming that true (and better) version of ourselves.

There are ways where we can recognise this dissonance and then find ways to compensate or manage it. We have heard the saying “You can fool some of the people some of the time,” but many of us fool ourselves all the time. There are some telltale signs and feelings which reflect our internal discomfort when we do let ourselves down, and consequently what
we do to cope with those feelings of anxiety. They include:

  • Feeling shame, guilt, embarrassment or regret over the choice you have made
  • Post-rationalising and seeking to justify behaviours and thoughts that don’t reflect your values
  • Compartmentalising your behaviours, thoughts or feelings to create demarcation between what you believe and what you do: even Albert Einstein was guilty of this behaviour — as a scientist he bought into the value of empirical data and proof, yet he was a practising Jew and deeply religious, believing a God which he could not prove existed
  • Avoidance of certain situations and opposing information that would create internal stress
  • And finally, rejection or re-evaluation of values, principles and beliefs to mitigate or lessen the cognitive dissonance

To be human is to be a bundle of contradictions. Blaise Pascal, a 17th century mathematician (upon whose shoulders Einstein would have stood), was also religious and a deeply devout Catholic. He said, “Contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the lack of contradiction a sign of truth.”

Sometimes our truth is actually about holding two contradictory and opposing propositions. And sometimes contradiction is not a sign of weakness, but rather a legitimate feeling of internal oppositional truth. Monsieur Pascal was speaking of the complexity of being human.

In couples therapy, a therapist is often presented with two people who both love each other but at times cannot stand the sight of each other. They are at war and at peace. This is a “double bind” and should be viewed as neither wrong nor right, but nevertheless constitutes an untenable status quo. A therapist is tasked to work with this contradiction in order to find reconciliation if they are to work as
a couple. This is an interpersonal conflict, but the intrapersonal conflict is much harder to contend with.

The human paradox

So is there a way to reconcile the contradictions that exist within the self? It is optimum to find perfect alignment in the nexus between what we value and then how we subsequently live that value but is it realistic? Understanding that cognitive dissonance is part of the human experience may assist us to better live with our contrariness. The question remains: how do we find the right balance between our incongruity and integrity?

One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, F Scott Fitzgerald, famously wrote: “The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” As a keen observer of the human condition, he came up with this proposition even before the appearance of the term “cognitive dissonance”, which was coined by American social psychologist Leon Festinger. Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby, where the eponymous character was arguably one of the most complex and paradoxical protagonists in literature, realised that we human beings are designed to be contradictory, contrary and eternally conflicted.

Cognitive dissonance recognises the proposition that holding two contradictory but seemingly true notions is mentally stressful. It also contends that holding a value and then acting in violation of said value can create a fissure in the self. The evolved person doesn’t seek to rationalise or justify, avoid or to evict beliefs, but rather to investigate how better to sit with oppositional truths as well as finding ways to stay true to their values.

The Prophet, written by Khalil Gibran, was one of the best-selling books of all time. He didn’t like to be viewed as a philosopher but merely as a writer. Yet, like Fitzgerald, he understood the duality of being human. In his book of aphorisms, Sand and Foam, he wrote this little pearl of wisdom: “I have never agreed with my other self wholly. The truth of the matter seems to lie between us.” To be whole is to understand that at times we reside in a divided self.

A climate scientist still has to jump on a plane to make it to a conference to discuss global warming. The act of flying literally flies in the face of the deeply held value to save the planet. The scientist has to reconcile the cost versus the benefit. Every day we have to make moral decisions which impact implementation of our values, then arrive at thoughtful and responsible outcomes without the need to justify their position.

This approach is not about letting anybody off the hook here. In the case of the person who values health and wellbeing but still drinks excessively, that act of cognitive dissonance has not come about through thoughtful and conscientious reflection and will result in discomfort and dismay. This is a person who chooses to violate their own values and to reject accountability. To quote Khalil Gibran again on personal responsibility, he professes that we all have a choice in how we live our values: “Everyone starts his day and is a vendor of his soul, either freeing it, or bringing about its ruin.”

Cognitive resonance

This journey through life is a self-discovery tour. You will go to places never explored, and sadly some of us will never fully plumb the depths of our being. The more we know of ourselves the more we can become our true selves — contradictions and all.

Through self-compassion rather than self-denial, we can come to realise all parts of ourselves and accept our contradictions, even when they make us feel uncomfortable as we struggle to grapple with them. While we may never be able to move fully from cognitive dissonance to what could be called cognitive resonance where we feel fully reconciled within our being, the process can still be a liberating and meaningful experience.

And isn’t the journey what it’s all about? Perhaps the last word should go to a modern-day philosopher who is still very much alive and on his own journey. Criss Jami, also known as the Killosopher, which sounds a bit ominous, is actually very generous when regarding the human condition. On the experience of being human, he writes, “We form a necessary paradox; not a senseless contradiction.”
Now that makes sense.

Article Featured in WellBeing 205

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland is a therapist in private practice on Sydney’s northern beaches helping people resolve the underlying issues that perpetuate conflict or disconnectedness so they can create meaningful and happy lives. Marie speaks at conferences, forums and community events on a variety of topics from wellbeing and positive psychology to practical philosophy.

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