Cognitive Dissonance: Why we’d rather change our thoughts than behaviours
In the last two blog entries, I wrote about cognitive-behavioural theory and how it explains intimate partner aggression. The main tenet in these blogs was that when an individual perpetrates aggression, they usually engage in biased forms of self-talk (thoughts) that ultimately lead to violent and aggressive behaviours. In today’s blog, I will identify one of the cognitive processes that all humans (whether or not we have been victims or perpetrators of abuse) use for rationalizing behaviours.
Cognitive Dissonance: Changing our Thoughts to Rationalize Abuse
In 1956, Leon Festinger came up with a theory called cognitive dissonance. This theory states that when our thoughts and expectations are challenged by reality, we become mentally uncomfortable. In order to avoid or minimize this cognitive discomfort, we end up changing our original thoughts and opinions in order to justify what is happening. In other words, when there is dissonance between our expectations and reality, we end up changing our thoughts and beliefs rather than our behaviours.
In the context of unhealthy relationships, cognitive dissonance explains why individuals will often blame themselves or minimize the abuse in their lives. According to this theory, when individuals are being abused (either verbally, psychologically, or physically), they may change their thoughts in order to justify their current predicament. For example, they may say to themselves, “If only I wouldn’t make my partner so jealous, he (she) would be a lot nicer to me. It must be my fault.” By changing our thoughts (i.e., telling ourselves that we are the reason for the abuse in our lives), we are alleviating the cognitive tension brought on by the reality that we are in a relationship with someone who is unhealthy.
Perpetrators of abuse also experience cognitive dissonance. For example, humans intuitively know that it is morally wrong to hurt another individual. However, in order to avoid dealing with the cognitive dissonance of abusing someone they supposedly ‘love,’ perpetrators will change their thoughts in order to justify their abusive behaviours. “They made me do it,” or, “I love them so much that I end up doing crazy things,” are examples of altered thoughts used to justify dissonant behaviours.
Cognitive Dissonance: Justifying our Addictions
Addicts use the same principle. For example, when smokers are confronted with scientific information that smoking is harmful to their health, they will often find ways to rationalize or justify their behaviours. They may say, “Well, if smoking doesn’t kill me, something else will.” Or, “Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer. Many people who don’t smoke also get lung cancer.” These statements are indications that the smoker is experiencing cognitive dissonance. They are trying to alter their thoughts in order minimize the tension brought on by their in-congruent behaviours.
Hoping this bit of knowledge provides you with personal growth,
Dr. Richard Amaral,