“I couldn’t have done that, I’m not that kind of person!” If you have ever found yourself having to think or say something like this, you have probably been dealing with cognitive dissonance.
Here is what Wikipedia has to say about cognitive dissonance:
“Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing them.”
A fairly innocuous example of cognitive dissonance is the story of The Fox and the Grapes.The fox wants to eat the high hanging grapes, but, unable to reach them, he convinces himself that he didn’t really want the grapes anyway because they were probably sour.
A more serious example is of a doctor whose patient dies in her care because of a mistake the doctor made. She then denies that she made a mistake, despite the clear evidence that she did, and comes up with several rationalizations to explain why the patient’s death wasn’t her fault.
Most of us would look at the situation of the doctor and say that she was wrong and should own up to it. We perceive her as being dishonest and uncaring.
What is really going on is more complex than just dishonesty and lack of caring. The doctor most likely is a very honest and caring person and sees herself as such. Because being honest and caring is an essential part of how she sees herself, there is a great cognitive dissonance introduced by the death of her patient due to a mistake she made.
Her mind has a difficult choice to make: either face the very uncomfortable fact that she was responsible for the death of her patient, or find reasons why it wasn’t her fault. While facing the fact is obviously the right thing to do, it will seriously call into question a very fundamental aspect of who she is. In order to live with herself and sleep at night, she chooses, somewhat unconsciously, to find other reasons for the patient’s death.
Cognitive dissonance is important for all of us to understand because it is very easy for us, when faced with cognitive dissonance in our own lives, to choose the easiest way to deal with it. When the dissonance is serious so too are the results of our choices. We can end up hurting those we love and ruining our careers and reputations.
So, next time you find yourself feeling uncomfortable or even panicking because of something you said or did that had negative consequences, stop yourself and try to remember that you are facing cognitive dissonance and then consciously make a decision as to how you are going to deal with it. I think, and hope, you’ll make the right choice.