How to Recognize Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is usually defined as “the feeling of discomfort when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values, or emotional reactions.” (Wikipedia) Or, “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes.” (COED) The less familiar aspect of the distressing mental state – that we can also get into trouble when our beliefs and our actions do not coincide – gets less attention. This situation may go beyond the simple case of conscience and morality, of doing something we know is wrong and then feeling guilty (moral cognitive dissonance). It is quite possible to stumble into serious and painful cognitive dissonance without realizing what has happened.

Cup of Cognition - The Childrens Cup, 1894

When we look upon our actions and see they do not coincide with our beliefs, we become distressed. This is one form of cognitive dissonance, a kind of jarring discord within the psyche. (Image: Wikipaintings)

Cognitive dissonance arising from actions can get anyone into trouble, but writers provide vivid and highly visible examples of the phenomenon. Writers define themselves by the act of writing. Thus, they must either keep scribbling constantly or come up with seemingly legitimate excuses for their inactivity if they are to retain their sense of identity, their self-image. When a prolonged dry spell arrives, and the writing stops, cognitive dissonance sets in. There is a clash between the belief that writers write and the fact that the “pen” remains idle. Since they do not recognize the distress for what it is, writers speak instead of the depression and the pain of “writer’s block.”

Realistically, having to face this problem is inevitable. To mention just one possible cause for a dry spell: high quality conceptual work of any kind requires an “incubation” period, sometimes more than one, and these “gestation” periods may be lengthy. Surprisingly, many, perhaps even most, writers do not realize this. The work seizes up, and for want of a legitimate excuse, the cognitive dissonance ensues. The remedy is a good measure of self-knowledge and a thorough understanding of the creative process. Such knowledge can account for the dry spell, thereby eliminating the cognitive dissonance.

Another variant of cognitive dissonance brought on by acting is more subtle and pernicious. Lack of self-confidence can make a writer think they are untalented. The attempt to write is then an act committed against this belief and induces dissonance. To alleviate the pain-inducing conflict between belief and act, the writer often takes a self-defeating stance and discounts the work as worthless. During an interview with The Paris Review magazine, novelist Saul Bellow dismissed his early writing as “timid,” because “I still felt the incredible effrontery of announcing myself to the world … as a writer and an artist.” For many, such dissonance collapses the attempt to write professionally.

Again, self-knowledge would seem to offer a way around such difficulties. A thorough understanding of the nature of talent and a philosophical attitude towards its growth and development would also be helpful.

These examples reveal how easily and unknowingly we can slide into damaging cognitive dissonance. We should always regard bad feelings about what we are doing as a warning that dissonance is occurring. Awareness that these feelings mean we have encountered a discrepancy between what we believe and what we are doing is the first step towards finding an accurate explanation of what is happening and an effective solution.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

4 thoughts on “How to Recognize Cognitive Dissonance”

  1. Thank you for this post, Thomas – it is very pertinent to my current situation! I don’t think it occurred to me previously to think of the problems connected to writing in terms of cognitive dissonance, but it’s a very persuasive point of view. This is why I like your blog – you often make me approach things from an angle I hadn’t previously considered.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Mari! Philosophizing is all about providing illumination and fresh perspectives, so I’m very happy to hear that my thinking is of some use to others.

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