Cognitive Dissonance

When your actions and beliefs aren’t aligned, your mind gets uncomfortable and tries to resolve the discrepancy.

Cognitive dissonance is a really complicated-sounding psychological term, but it’s actually pretty easy to understand. It means:

  1. You have a set of beliefs.
  2. You take an action that conflicts with your beliefs.
  3. You experience mental discomfort because you’ve done something that isn’t in alignment with your beliefs.
  4. You attempt to resolve the discomfort by retroactively changing your beliefs, justifying the behaviour, or owning the mistake.

If that’s hard to visualize, let’s give an example:

  1. You believe yourself to be a mature person who doesn’t get into fights.
  2. You get into a fight.
  3. You experience mental discomfort because your actions aren’t aligned with your beliefs.
  4. You justify your actions, perhaps by saying the other person deserved it, or it was self-defense.

Cognitive dissonance is generally tied to your ego. You feel cognitive dissonance because your own actions are an attack on your ego. If not addressed proactively, cognitive dissonance can make bad situations even worse and lead to stunted personal growth. But it’s also an opportunity to improve yourself.

When you experience cognitive dissonance, you usually have three ways to resolve it:

  1. Retroactively change your beliefs to align with your actions. This is not productive because you’re lying to yourself.
  2. Justify your actions as being aligned with your beliefs. This is not productive because you’re lying to yourself and others.
  3. Become aware that you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance, own the mistake you made, and take action to make things right. This is the best way to resolve cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance in real life

Here are some examples of cognitive dissonance in real life.

Digging your heels in when proven wrong.
We want to believe we’re smart, and it’s hard to admit when we’ve made a mistake because this is a direct attack on our ego. In fact, directly confronting people with evidence they are wrong leads them to entrench their beliefs further. This phenomenon is known as the backfire effect.

Staying in an abusive relationship.
If you believe you are a strong person who would not tolerate abuse, and if you believe your partner loves you, it’s hard for your brain to rationalize this if your partner becomes violent. You may be tempted to justify your partner’s behaviour by thinking the violence wasn’t so bad, or that you deserved it. There’s a tendency for abuse victims to blame themselves.

Remaining involved with a cult or other unethical organization.
When you’ve invested significant time and effort supporting an organization, it can be hard to stand against it if its actions become unethical. It’s especially challenging if participation in the organization becomes part of your self-identity. This is why Paul Graham advises that you keep your identity small.

Cognitive dissonance in Jiu-Jitsu

Here are some examples of cognitive dissonance in Jiu-Jitsu.

Staying at a bad gym.
There are a lot of bad instructors and bad gyms out there. For many of us, our gym is part of our self-identity, and if we’re presented with evidence that we should leave the gym, it can be a painful decision. It’s especially painful because it often results in you taking a stand against your friends and training partners. But the fact that people are hesitant to leave bad gyms is part of what allows them to continue to exist.

Sticking to a bad strategy.
If we’ve spent a lot of time developing a gameplan that doesn’t work, it can be hard to admit we’ve wasted our time. This is an example of the sunk-cost fallacy: it’s hard for your ego to change course when you’ve invested a lot of time and money. But sticking to a bad plan is far more expensive than changing course when confronted with evidence that your plan isn’t working.

Justifying losses.
Many competitors, after losing, immediately begin justifying their losses. This might come in the form of blaming an injury, criticizing the referee, or accusing the opponent of cheating. When your ego wants you to be perceived as a skilled grappler, it’s hard to accept that you were defeated.

Further study