Part 1: Cognitive Dissonance and its Toxicity.
Understanding ourselves is one of the most difficult things to do. But self-reflection and understanding the relationship between our mental and physical ideas of self is the first step to being everything you have ever wanted to be.
Part 1 is about understanding our own dissonance and how it effects everything we do. We must gain an understanding before we can begin developing, correcting and recreating our selves.
This is a 30 minute read. I strongly suggest reading it through a couple of times, over a couple of days in order to reflect and relate to the information in this post.
Dissonance is the discomfort or anxiety we feel when we have two different beliefs, values, ideas, reactions or emotions at the same time. Our brain automatically begins trying to find ways to reduce this feeling by altering our current cognitions, creating new ones or reducing the importance of one or more of the elements creating our dissonance. This has a profound impact on every aspect of our entire lives because it is continually shaping our unconscious mind that drives nearly all of our thinking and behavior.
Our brain is made up of about one hundred billion (100,000,000,000) neurons. Each different experience will create different neural connections, which will lead to different cognitions. Depending on which neurons get stimulated, some connections become stronger and more efficient, while others become weaker. This is neuroplasticity. The more you repeat a thought, feeling, behavior, learn a skill, practice a talent, the stronger your neural connections become. This can be seen in the physical properties of your brain. Rationality and emotional resilience work in the same way as learning a new skill or talent. The neural connections that are being used become stronger. Everything you are doing at any given time is changing your brain physically so that you can become stronger and more efficient at it. This is the impact that our dissonance has on us. Every time we reduce our dissonance, we are creating stronger neural connections for the behavior, belief or emotion that we chose.
Due to neuroplasticity, through training and practice we can master virtually ANY skill or talent.
Stress does NOT come from the things that are going on in your life, it comes from your perception and the thoughts that you have about the things that are going on in your life. Understanding that stress is the result of our thoughts gives us an amazing tool. Instead of trying to control all the external factors that are leading to our stress, if we can change how we think about the factors we can create visible, physical reductions and ultimately eliminate our stress.
You are what you repeatedly do/think. This is not just a philosophy, it s a physical effect that happens in our brain and body chemistry.
Our state of mind changes our body chemistry. This is why placebos can have such amazing effects. This is also why too much stress can show itself in the form of physical pain, and why we have the ability to deal with physical pain by pushing it outside of our mind. (stress headaches, stress heartaches and individuals with high pain tolerance.)
Specific neurons and neurotransmitters create different responses in our brains.
Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter found in our sympathetic nervous system that stimulates the heart, blood vessels, large internal organs, and adrenal medulla in the brain. Norepinephrine has a stimulating effect that creates alertness and plays a large role in learning and long-term memory. However, excess amounts of norepinephrine will trigger a physiological response of fear and panic. When this happens, we tap into our fight or flight response, designed to ensure our survival in life threatening situations.
This is also our personal self defense mechanism that is triggered when we feel the need to protect our thoughts from the influences of other people. We enter this state when we are presented with information that challenges our current views and belief systems. During this time, if we are presented with anything that is different from our current beliefs the primitive part of our brain will knock out all of our working memory. This can be seen physically in the brain and it is what we call “close minded” and “stubborn”. When our brain is in this state of self-defense, we have trouble processing any new information, regardless of how rational, logical or helpful the information actually is. Even in a simple discussion of opinion, or the exchanging of facts, our brains respond on a neural level as if our lives are being threatened. This causes us to completely reject things we would otherwise agree with.
(See The Belief Disconfirmation Paradigm below) When someone challenges our feelings, our actions, our beliefs, our processes or our lifestyle, our brains enter this self-defense state. It is our way of protecting our ego, our confidence, and maintaining our mental status quo that our actions and our beliefs are always correct and optimal. Norepinephrine causes the fight-or-flight, “close minded” and “stubborn” stress responses because we feel the need to protect ourselves. But in any situation, if we do not feel the need to protect ourselves we do not get this overloaded release of norepinephrine. This is a physiological example of how stress is created from our thoughts and personal perspectives of the things that are happening to us.
If our views are appreciated when we are expressing ourselves the defensive neurotransmitters in our brain start to decrease and the reward neurons begin to fire. This gives us a sense of empowerment and increases our confidence and self-esteem. Our beliefs have a massive impact on our physical body chemistry. Self-belief, self-esteem and confidence are directly linked to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Lacking in serotonin has a devastating effect and leads to anxiety and depression, willingly engaging in self-destructive behaviors and in some cases suicide. When we receive social validation of ourselves it increases the levels of serotonin and dopamine in our system. Increases in serotonin and dopamine give us our ability to let go of emotional tensions and fixations and easily become more self-aware.
Our morals and ethics are entirely created from our experiences in our environment as we grow up. Most of our actions and inactions are completely based off of the validation we receive from others. Psychology refers to this as our need to fit in. The release of Serotonin and Dopamine from the firing of reward neurons is another physiological example of how stress is created from our thoughts and personal perspectives. Our state of mind has a profound impact on our body chemistry.
When we think any thought or engage in any behavior, we are stimulating neurons in our brain and strengthening the connections. But when we observe others engaging in behaviors or expressing thoughts, we have mirror neurons in our brains that fire off as if we are actually personally experiencing the things we are seeing. They act as empathetic neurons and they allow us to feel what someone else is feeling. Mirror neurons can be stimulated and activated by our imagination, allowing us to get emotional feedback as if it were coming from someone else, and we can also create experiences in our imaginations that our neurons will believe are real, resulting in physical changes in our brains and body chemistry. Mirror neurons are what allow us to self-reflect on our lives.
This is a neurochemical consequence of the firing of neurons and has a huge impact on how memories and written into our brains, and retrieved from our brains. This is why our memories can be so unreliable at times. But it also gives us the ability to create scenarios of success, happiness and positive outcomes within our own minds that will be written into our subconscious mind as real events, resulting in a positive feedback response in our brains and an increase in confidence and self-esteem.
Mirror neurons are responsible for why we are built off of social validation because they do not recognize the difference between themselves and others. Our minds are in a constant state of conflict between how we see ourselves and how others view us. When we feel judged or embarrassed our brains start to find justification for what has happened and finds ways to reduce our dissonance. This creates conflicts with our confidence, self-esteem and personal identity. Modern brain scans show that we experience these negative emotions long before we are aware of them, if we ever become aware of them. There is a never-ending war within our brains about the conflict between two images of ourselves and how we behave, and most of the battles will never enter our conscious mind. Every small victory from a negative response to our dissonance has a profound impact on our lives.
Both the negative and positive effects of our dissonance go completely unnoticed in our personal awareness. But we do experience all of these effects from every thought that we ever have. Negative dissonance increases our lack of self-awareness, and decreases our ability to become self-aware. Self-awareness and self-observation have profound impacts on the functions of our brains by activating the self-regulating regions and giving us amazing control over our thoughts and feelings.
Every time we take control, we significantly strengthen our emotional resilience and rationality, resulting in a clear mind. This leads to increase in body chemistry, reduction in stress, easier learning, increase in life fulfillment and a huge decrease in our negative dissonance.
When we are not self-aware, our thoughts and actions are entirely impulsive based on the foundation we have created through our brains trying to reduce our negative dissonance. This means that if we have a huge discrepancy between how we view ourselves, how society views us, and how we believe we should behave. Which causes our impulsive thoughts and actions to be entirely outside of our control, and will be randomly firing on our self-created autopilot. Understanding that these negative thoughts and actions are outside of our control is incredibly frustrating. Our brains resolve this by creating explanations to justify our behavior and physically rewriting the events into our memories. This is referred to as memory reconsolidation, which leads us to believing that we were in control of our actions. It is backward rationalization and it leaves our negative emotions unresolved. These unresolved negative emotions are rewired through our subconscious and are waiting to be triggered at any time. This continues to fuel our confusion because our brains will constantly try to justify our behaviors. The result of all these complex firing and rewiring of neurons creates schizophrenic behavior that we all experience.
Humans DO NOT think much about their attitudes, and think even less about if there is any conflict in them. But when we become self-aware, we can alter our misplaced emotions because we gain control of the thoughts that are causing them. Gaining control over your own thoughts gives us amazing control over many factors of our lives that were thought to be outside of our control, such as the behaviors of other people towards you, because of the way others will view you and their need of social validation.
The truth is, there is no “center” of consciousness. What we turn into a unity of our mind is just the collection of all our separate firing neurons and how they are being expressed at any given moment in time. All of our experiences are constantly creating physical changes in our system that we call our consciousness. Our tendency to define ourselves as ideal individual constants neurologically wires our brains with dysfunctional thinking, like the need to impose expectations and compulsive labeling of everything. (Example: stereotyping a Person/place/thing and criticisms of things that challenge our state of mind.) We create the psychological label of our “self” as entirely internal and our environment as entirely external. This puts a limit on our neurochemical processes and creates a disconnection from our experiences.
Happiness and fulfillment are stimulated when we are NOT being judged or labeled for our actions and interactions. Having different views and disagreements with one another do not have a negative impact on interactions where we are accepted for who we are and what we believe without judgment. This creates a neurochemical catalyst that wires our brains to accept all other rationally verified belief systems without feeling dissonance. This type of interaction and neural activity reduces our need for distractions and creates constants of constructive behavior towards our environment.
When the electrical signals of active neurons become synchronized in our brains, the effects rapidly spread through us and flow out to those around us. The phenomenon of emotions (happiness/angry), ideas (group think) behaviors (smoking/drinking) and health effects (obesity) spread between us through a society and become synchronized in the exact same way as the electrical signals spread through us and become synchronized.
“We are a global network of neurochemical reactions. And the self amplifying cycle of acceptance and acknowledgement, sustained by the daily choices in our interactions, is the chain-reaction that will ultimately define our collective ability to overcome imagined differences and look at life in the grand scheme of things.” –Athene-
The more we can consciously reduce our dissonance with logic, reason and core values the more we reinforce our positive, strong mental foundation. Since dissonance and neuroplasticity are fundamental mechanisms, creating self-awareness will greatly improve our personal ability both physically and intellectually, reduce massive amounts of stress, improve the functions of our central nervous system and improve our quality of life.
Examples of Dissonance:
“The Fox and the Grapes by Aesop (ca. 620–564 BCE). In the story, a fox sees some high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When the fox is unable to think of a way to reach them, he decides that the grapes are probably not worth eating, with the justification the grapes probably are not ripe or that they are sour (hence “sour grapes”).”
– When we desire something, and we believe it is unattainable we reduce our dissonance by criticizing it.
– This has a negative impact because we begin to pick apart and develop distaste for something we once wanted. This begins to carry over into other aspects of our life. The more often we do this the more permanent this thought process becomes. We start to criticize everything that will require more work to accomplish than we are currently prepared to do. This limits our drive, our openness to learning and problem solving and starts to push us away from big challenges and difficulties.
o Is there something in your life you criticize but deep down you do, or once, wanted to do/be?
– Aesop’s fable is a great example of negative dissonance that we are unaware we have experienced. This issue of “I want the grapes” remains unresolved and the justification for not getting the grapes weighs on our self-worth. This hurts our confidence and spreads through us on a neural level. We consciously criticize (the grapes are not worth it) but we neurologically wire a lack of ability into our brains (I am unable to get the grapes).
People will judge lying or cheating less harshly soon after they have either lied or cheated. (Judson Mills. Stanford Study)
– When we behave in a way that opposes our values, our brain immediately seeks to justify your behavior. You do not believe that cheating is okay. You were tempted to cheat, and you did cheat. Now, you believe that sometimes cheating is not so bad.
– This has a negative impact because you will begin to change your core values. You will start to view lying and cheating as okay behaviors, which will lead to easier lying and easier cheating and growing dishonesty. Losing our foundation for our core values will cause us to not live as the people we want to be. This subconscious battle will be won out by our justification of our behavior and will keep us in a constant state of unrest and unhappiness because our decisions and actions go against what we believe. (How society views us v. how we view ourselves. Moral values being shaped and changed by our environment) You could also continue to judge people harshly for lying and cheating while justifying your own fouls which will limit your ability to sympathize and empathize with people and cause you to unfairly judge them as bad people in any situation.
o Ever judged someone harshly for doing the same thing you have done before?
– This is explained more in psychology by dispositional attribution, situational attribution and the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is almost a universally fundamental thought process that we are all guilty of. We over value the dispositional (flaws in an individual’s personality) explanations for behavior and under valuing situational (circumstances around what caused the behavior) explanation. We more often than not attribute undesirable behaviors of others as dispositional flaws and justify our own behaviors as situational and “different”. This is how we maintain our status quo that we are ideal constants.
**The Belief Disconfirmation Paradigm**
Dissonance occurs when a person is presented with information that is inconsistent with their current beliefs. If changing their current beliefs cannot reduce the dissonance, the dissonance will result in misinterpretation of the information, rejection of the information and a desire to seek out those who share similar current beliefs or to persuade others against the new information in order to restore one’s consonance. (Examples: Alternative ways to approach diet, exercise, how to handle coworkers or bosses, how to handle relationships, how to effectively accomplish tasks at home, how to handle money, how to approach finding new jobs, adjusting your current job, creating new possibilities for yourself by using alternative methods to success.)
– We have an actual self defense mechanism in our brain that will fire when we feel our thoughts and beliefs are being threatened. This will cause us to completely reject anything that goes against our current beliefs no matter how sound the evidence, how strong the argument or how obvious the truth is. We love to believe that we are ideal constants. When someone brings a new idea to you that challenges your self “ideal” view, initially in our brain we take this as an attack on our selves, our status quo, our self-esteem, and confuses our view on how society sees us. This negative response neurons fire in our brain and completely shut us down to the new idea to protect us.
– This has a negative impact because we will cling tight to negative beliefs like our learned helplessness and start to reject a lot of useful information. We reject a lot of things that will make us happier or make our lives easier. We become less open minded to alternatives to countless aspect of our lives. This limits our ability to learn, grow, adjust to adversities and handle stress. It also makes us more sensitive to criticisms.
o Everyone is guilty of this sometimes.
– Through the Self-Evaluation Maintenance (SEM) theory.
This is what I have personally labeled as “learned helplessness” and it seems like it has spread to epidemic levels. On a daily basis I meet someone new who tells me “I cant do that because… blah, blah, blah”. Learned helplessness can be explained through the SEM theory. SEM theory explains the dynamic of our self-evaluation through our social relationships and interactions. Success of friends and those around us raise a person’s self-evaluation. An example would be if your sibling scored the game-winning goal in a championship game. Due to the closeness of the psychological relationship, this would cause a person’s self-evaluation to rise because they would be sharing in their sibling’s success. (Physical evidence is seen through the activation of mirror neurons).
When self-evaluation occurs in instances of low-relevance, meaning it does not interfere with an individual’s self-definition, that person will benefit from the success by connecting and sharing in the achievement. But when self-evaluation occurs in instances of high-relevance, meaning it DOES interfere with an individual’s self-definition, that person will begin a comparison process. This comparison process is what leads to belief disconfirmation paradigm thinking and learned helplessness. The degree of the self-evaluation varies based on psychological closeness of the people involved and the relevance to self-definition.
SEM and the belief disconfirmation paradigm are dangerous together. In instances of high relevance, this combination attacks our self-worth and our justification of perceived differences is a negative emotional experience that is wired into our brains and remains unresolved.
Example. Two best friends try out for the basketball team. Friend A makes the team, friend B gets cut. Friend B’s self-evaluation rises due to Friend A’s success.
Due to the closeness of the friends, Friend B begins the comparison process.
Friend A is better at basketball than Friend B.
Friend B’s self-worth is being challenged. Since B’s internal “ideal constant” is being challenged, his brain will begin reducing the dissonance in a number of possible ways. He will justify his failure (I was injured), criticize his friend or his friend’s accomplishment (“he isn’t even that good” “he is just friends with the coach, that’s all”) and seek out others who will reinforce these thoughts while blocking out anyone who has anything different to say about it.
– Criticize of teammates, coworkers, competitors, etc.
SEM also causes Learned Helplessness. Learned Helplessness is when an individual has learned to behave as “helpless” in a given situation and does not respond to opportunities to help themselves to avoid “unpleasant situations” or in the way I am relating it, avoid bringing back unresolved negative emotions that challenged our self-worth. Example excuses would be “I am too old” “My knees are bad” “my shoulder is bad” “my heart is bad” “my doctor says it’s a bad idea” “I don’t have the genetics” “I don’t have the resources” “I don’t have the time”
The idea of “I cant do it” is rarely, if ever, true. There are millions of examples of ordinary people overcoming extreme odds or circumstances to accomplish things they were originally told would be impossible. (You’ll never be able to walk/run again. You’ll never be able to use that hand the same again.)
It is comforting to our self-confidence to be told we can do something due to an external or independent factor. That way, it is not our fault we failed or are not where we would want to be. It was outside of our control. We become content with our incapability and avoid anything that would challenge the negative belief of “I cant”. It is easier to justify our failures and justify not trying than it is to identify a flaw in our “ideal constant”.
Not all dissonance is bad.
The Effort-Justification Paradigm
Dissonance occurs when we choose to engage in an unpleasant activity in order to achieve our desired goal. Dissonance is reduced when we over exaggerate our desire for the goal. Example: “Aronson & Mills had individuals undergo a severe or mild “initiation” in order to become a member of a group. In the severe-initiation condition, the individuals engaged in an embarrassing activity. The group they joined turned out to be very dull and boring. The individuals in the severe-initiation condition evaluated the group as more interesting than the individuals in the mild-initiation condition.” This directly reflects that famous saying “Its about the journey, not the destination.” The harder we work for something, the more we enjoy it.
– The more effort we put into accomplishing a goal, the more we enjoy it. It is more than a motivational saying. It is a truth that can be physically seen.
– This can have a huge positive impact on our lives. If we understand that the more effort we put into something the more we will enjoy it we become more willing to work. We become more willing to face challenges and we view difficulty as a motivator and not a deterrent. We start to put more of ourselves into everything we do every single day, big and small. In turn, we get more out of everything we do every day. We start to find a greater fulfillment in our lives.
There are HUNDREDS of more examples of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance has a huge impact on social behavior, education, therapy and mental/physical health.
We have the ability to rewire ourselves physically. If we can start to think about our own attitudes we can start to hardwire ourselves to think, feel, and act in the way we want at all times. We will be better prepared to handle any situation that we encounter. We will start to be less stressed, more confident, significantly happier and measurably healthier.