I was reading in Cafe Think when one of my favorite professors sat down in front of me. We chatted for awhile and he suddenly asked, “So, Raina, was UC Berkeley your first choice?” I smiled and said no. But I quickly added that I really love my college life here and feel like it’s the best place for me to be. He let out a giggle and walked away, leaving me thoroughly confused.
Luckily, he turned back again and asked me if UC Berkeley was my second choice. I said no. “How about third choice?” I had to say no again. But I immediately explained that it was because I went to a private high school on the East Coast, where everybody wanted to go to Ivies and mocked public schools. I told him, “I mean, there must be a reason, fate or whatever, why I ended up here. But I do think it’s the best place for me to be.”
“Sure, sure,” he answered with another knowing smile and walked away. But this time I knew he would come back again, and he did.
“Not to dismiss what you just said, Raina, but what you’re experiencing now is called cognitive dissonance,” he said, half-jokingly. “It’s basically your brain fooling with you. You’re lying to yourself to make yourself feel better. You can never know what it’d be like for you to go to Brown or Columbia. It’s all just hindsight.”
Before he finally left, I promised him that I would look up the term.
According to one definition from Simply Psychology, “Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.”
The fact that, in reality, I didn’t get into Brown University and thus attend UC Berkeley conflicts with my “old belief” or personal expectation that the former would be the best place for me to thrive personally and academically. I remember vividly how I cried for a few days and remained bitter for a long time after getting rejected by my top choice. In order to resolve the feeling of mental discomfort resulting from the dissonance between the existential reality and my personal belief, I chose to change the conflicting belief so that it became consistent with my behavior. I started believing that UC Berkeley is the best college for me, while in fact there’s no way for me to know since I will never find out what it would be like for me to be at Brown. Moreover, my “old belief” is another example of cognitive dissonance between the fact that I had to choose a top choice college for an early decision application and the belief that I actually had no such clear preference.
The more I reflected upon this concept, the more I realized how often cognitive dissonance occurs in our lives. We have such strong inner drives to achieve harmony and avoid conflict that cognitive dissonance often has a powerful influence on our beliefs and behaviors.
We have such strong inner drives to achieve harmony and avoid conflict that cognitive dissonance often has a powerful influence on our beliefs and behaviors.
I am, ashamedly, one of those people who really want to lose weight and one day achieve that anonymous hourglass figure on a gym poster. I am, even more ashamedly, also someone who makes everyday a happy cheat day. According to the cognitive dissonance theory, there are three ways for someone like me to reduce the dissonance. First, I can acquire more supportive beliefs that outweigh the dissonant one: “I will spend more time working out later.” Or, I can reduce the importance of one conflicting belief: “Living and eating happily now is better than having a lean body and a stoic lifestyle.” I can also change the conflicting belief so that it is consistent with other ones:“Meat is all protein and cannot make me gain more weight.” I have frequently resorted to all of these ways of thinking to reduce my feelings of discomfort, and I will not be surprised if you find them familiar too.
Another relevant example might be our attitudes toward committing to a relationship in a stressful environment. If you know, you know — single friends love talking or joking about relationships when they hang out together. My friends and I are no exceptions. In our late-night conversations, one of them always resignedly says, “I’m just too busy for a relationship.”
It is true that we are all swamped with different types of academic or social commitments in college, but can being busy really explain why we put our emotional lives on the back burner?
Our emotional lives are such complex systems that there is no way to simply classify our conflicting beliefs or our coping methods. However, the “I’m too busy” attitude toward relationships has a common characteristic with all other cases of cognitive dissonance: a subconscious fear of conflict. Some of us are restrained by shyness or lack of confidence, even though we may really like someone. Some of us are always entangled in half-relationships that revolve around the question of “will we or won’t we?,” but never the declaration of “we are.” Some of us long for such a definite declaration, while being afraid of what may come after it. Some of us don’t even know how to love ourselves and yet crave the feeling of falling in love with others. Some of us have already been rejected, facing the contradiction between reality and expectation.
Yet all of us form a generation of confusion, with similar attitudes toward relationships: we’re too busy to make an effort for an “indeterminate” cause, too busy to alter our “perfectly” fulfilling single life, too busy to make the first “risky” move, too busy to acknowledge our delicate feelings toward someone, too busy to exchange sporadic excitement for “never-ending” adjustment. So we hide inside ambiguity, looking up in the air and speculating from afar about the lofty ideal of “love” — a conflict in and of itself!
By becoming aware of our inner contradictions, we can turn cognitive dissonance into an evolutionary gift from our brain.
Even though I have given relatively lighthearted examples, some of our subconscious ways of reducing cognitive dissonance –– running away from reality, for example –– can aggravate the feelings of discomfort and become harmful to our mental health. We may find more and more excuses to justify unhealthy behaviors, such as staying up late or smoking too much, through the subconscious processes of resolving dissonance. We may also become trapped within a mode of dissonance reduction that does not actually work and only produces a more excruciating form of inner conflict. How we choose to resolve the dissonance and the feelings of mental discomfort, therefore, becomes a reflection of our mental health.
By becoming aware of our inner contradictions, we can turn cognitive dissonance into an evolutionary gift from our brain. Oakland-based artist Katie Zhu, whose project “And Not Or” was featured in Anxy magazine, elegantly captures this complexity of our inner lives. For the caption of each colorful drawing, she uses “and” to connect two seemingly contradicting sentences. It’s okay to feel loved and alone. It’s okay to want a lot of things and still not know what we really want. It’s okay to be strong and vulnerable.
The message of this art extends to real-world relevance. In order to become who we really want to be, we need to acknowledge how we actually think. More importantly, we need to conquer our subconscious fear of conflict.
Cognitive dissonance can then lead to positive change and growth. By acknowledging and reflecting upon these inner contradictions, we can actively and consciously choose the most constructive method of coping with cognitive dissonance and the resulting discomfort. For example, we can seek relief by transforming negative behaviors — ones that clash with our beliefs — to positive ones, such as increasing our amount of exercise or quitting smoking. We can also simply accept our full selves and the entirety of a complex human life, living confidently with our cognitive dissonance.
We all have different facets. We all contradict ourselves. The world is full of dynamic tensions of opposites, which gives rise to the ever-evolving quality of our universe, as explained by Heraclitus with his epigram on the river of flux: “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” But it is exactly through these conflicts, as well as through our attempts at resolving them, that we rise from a pool of stagnant water and live through the flow of life.