Cognitive Dissonance As A Framework For Change
When approaching “self-improvement”, it can be intimidating to want a change but not know where or how to start. By breaking change into a sequence of phases with tips for passing each one, it becomes more approachable; you can take the process one step at a time. Merely giving each phase a name can help you to ground yourself in the adventure.
A helpful framework is to think about change as a way of ridding oneself from cognitive dissonance: a situation involving conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors. In this post I don’t discuss changing your beliefs or tell you which beliefs are “right” and “wrong”. Instead, I assume your beliefs to be absolute truths and that all positive change fits under the umbrella of aligning one’s attitudes and behaviors with one’s beliefs. Then I discuss change as a process by which one aligns his attitudes and behaviors with his beliefs.
- Beliefs: ideas you hold to be true
- Values: what is important to you
- Attitude: how you treat others and approach situations
- Behavior: how you act
1. Acknowleding an Area of Cognitive Dissonance
The first step of change is acknowledging an area of cognitive dissonance. An area of cognitive dissonance for one person may not be an area of cognitive dissonance for another; it is heavily dependent on a person’s beliefs and values. An example could be believing that animals shouldn’t unnecessarily be killed (belief) while being okay with eating meat (attitude) and eating meat (behavior); the belief contradicts with the attitude and behavior.
This step often means reflecting on your beliefs and whether or not they align with your attitudes and behaviors. Because we are taking beliefs to be axiomatic truths, we can conclude that the attitudes and beliefs are in the “wrong”.
I’m not here to comment on what your belief system should be. The fact is that change is what people do to align their attitudes and behaviors with their beliefs. In order for a change to come about, one must first acknowledge that their beliefs aren’t aligned with their attitudes and behaviors.
2. Desiring a Change
After acknowleding an area of cognitive dissonance, the next step is to convince yourself that you desire to rid yourself of it. This step appears like it should follow directly from acknowledging an area of cognitive dissonance, but it does not. Often times people “rationalize” away the cognitive dissonance by making excuses about their personal situation or how the “rules” don’t apply to them in order to avoid getting out of their comfort zone. Do not allow yourself rationalize it away or you will never make it past this step.
Note that fantasizing about the positive effects of a change is not sufficient for truly desiring it. No, it means thinking long and hard about both the benefits and negative consequences (be it a time investment, life style change, etc). It is absolutely necessary that you calmly and coldly calculate the price and weight the postive effects against these disadvantages.
Once you have coldly decided that that is what you want, embrace the mentality that your decision is forever beyond your dispute. You should never ask yourself again if you made the right decision. Entering this mindset will give you more resolve in implementing the change.
Only now, after making a decision and manifesting it as an absolute truth can you consider yourself to be desiring a change. Congratulations, you have aligned your attitudes with your beliefs.
3. Implementing a Behavioral Change
The only thing left out of alignment is your behaviors. Typically people view this step as difficult, but if you have completed the “desiring a change” step correctly it becomes very approachable.
Unlike most people making a change who are battling with their attitudes and behaviors at the same time, you need only implement the behavior. It is common that, in the moment, when people face disadvantages of the change they are trying to realize, they begin doubting whether or not they truly desire the change. As soon as this happens, you have lost.
You will never live this experience because you have locked away your desire as an absolute truth, empowering you to take the disadvantages of the change head on.
The rest of the behavioral implementation really comes down to just do it. Here are a few more tips:
- draw motivation from the benefits of succeeding in the change
- curate your environment to aid you in making a change
- when temptations arise, instead of telling yourself “I will begin to reform the next time”, tell yourself that “the last time was the last”.
You may try and “fail” to implement your desired behaviors a few times. Once you lock in the behavioral changes, you will have aligned your behaviors with your beliefs and attitudes.
4. Celebrating the Change
You have made it, give yourself a pat on the back! Celebrate the change and its positive results, and draw from this experience in your future adventures. You have now ridded yourself of a cognitive dissonance, and are most definitely better off for it :)
Here are some examples for better understanding the previous phases. Depending on your beliefs, some of them may not apply to you.
- acknowledging that you shouldn’t smoke (belief), but thinking that it is okay (attitude) and smoking yourself (behavior)
- desiring to stop smoking, but not yet taking steps to change behavior
- implementing behavioral changes to stop smoking
- celebrating success in quitting smoking
- acknowledging that you shouldn’t unnecessarily kill animals (belief), but having no desire to stop eating them (attitude) and eating them yourself (behavior)
- desiring to give up animal products, but not yet taking steps to change behavior
- implementing behavioral changes to stop eating animals
- celebrating success in pursuing vegetarianism/veganism
Video Game Addiction
- acknowledging that you should excessively play video games (belief), but thinking that it is okay (attitude) and excessively playing video games yourself (behavior)
- desiring to stop excessively playing video games, but not yet taking steps to change behaviork
- implementing behavioral changes to stop playing video games
- celebrating success in quitting excessively playing video games
I hope that this mentality shift is as helpful to you as it was to me. Please leave any comments or reflections below :)