Have you ever put off something you know you needed to do? Ever binged on junk food during a diet? Ever put off calling your relatives because you’d rather play video games? Ever done anything you knew you’d later be ashamed of?
Of course you have.
We all behave in ways that are inconsistent with our beliefs, values, or todo lists. We shirk responsibilities. We ignore lapses in moral judgment. We indulge in short-term pleasure that we know our future selves won’t be very happy about.
When we do this, we suffer cognitive dissonance: a stressful, unpleasant feeling in the mind that often manifests as vague guilt, unhappiness, or shame. And when we feel like this, we do our best to distract ourselves, or ignore the feeling, or to rationalize our actions in absurd ways.
Don’t worry. It’s okay that we’re not always rational actors. It’s understandable that we can’t perfectly uphold our values in every waking moment of our lives. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up because we’re not perfect.
But we should acknowledge our failings, and we should try to do better in the future. So here’s my pragmatic suggestion: use cognitive dissonance as a tool for self-improvement.
Rather than turning our minds away from the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we should train ourselves to use it as a signal. When we notice it, we should turn towards it, listen to it, understand how we’ve failed — and take the opportunity to cast a vote for the type of person we wish to become. In the long run, we can become truer to ourselves.
As a vegetarian I suffered from cognitive dissonance constantly. I knew it was wrong to eat meat. But all the reasons I had for becoming vegetarian also applied to other animal products. I wanted to reduce animal suffering and I wanted to reduce my negative impact on the environment. Yet I continued to eat dairy and eggs — both of which cause extreme suffering and immense damage to the environment — simply because it felt too difficult to go vegan. I couldn’t bear to stop eating so many of my favourite foods.
While I was vegetarian I felt guilty very often — perhaps even more than when I was a meat-eater. Why could that be? I think it’s because I experienced much more cognitive dissonance after I stopped eating meat. While I was eating meat, I had to absolutely suppress thoughts of how much suffering and harm I was causing. If I acknowledged it, I would have had to stop eating meat immediately. (That’s also why once I seriously considered going vegetarian, it happened virtually overnight.)
But once I was vegetarian, I had allowed myself to acknowledge that eating meat was immoral and wrong. And this made it much more difficult to justify — or ignore — the immoral practice of consuming other animal products. I said aloud on many occasions that “I know I should be vegan”. I even attempted it several times. But it took years before I managed to make the vegan lifestyle stick. The trade-off of becoming vegan was more less appealing that becoming vegetarian. I had to sacrifice access to many more of my favourite foods for a much smaller reduction in harm.
In the end, going vegan was the only way to live in peace with my values. I got there eventually. But to do so, I had to lean in to the cognitive dissonance. I had to acknowledge it, shout it to the world, focus on the discomfort it caused me, and leverage it to change my habits.
Next time you suffer from cognitive dissonance, listen to yourself. Figure out what value or ideal you’re betraying, and see if you can find a way to make changes to your choices or your habits to live up to your beliefs.