The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the uncomfortable feeling that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviours, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance.
The example psychology lecturers use to explain cognitive dissonance is smoking. We all know that smoking causes cancers but smokers have to find a way to rationalise the fact that their favourite past time is actually killing them, or they wouldn’t be able to carry on smoking. Their excuses are many and varied. “My Grandad smoked all his life and he lived till he was 100” or “If I stop smoking I’ll stuff my face with cream buns and get so fat that my husband will leave me.”
By minimising the risks, or maximising the potential danger of giving up smoking, people can continue to kill themselves whilst sparing themselves any emotional discomfort along the way.
Cognitive dissonance can occur in many areas of life, but it is particularly evident in situations where an individual’s behaviour conflicts with beliefs that are integral to their self-image. This has important implications for our relationships because our ‘identity’ is very much based on our values, or what is really important to us.
When we are choosing a partner for example, we often set out with a subconscious shopping list of expectations. Ultimately we are aiming to find a partner who fits with our sense of self, whether that means finding someone who is an academic, a creative or an entrapeneur. Finding a partner who is financially stable is usually a high priority, but when, for example, a woman forms a relationship with a man who doesn’t meet her financial expectations, she feels conflicted. In order to reduce the dissonance between her beliefs and her behaviour, she could simply bin the relationship, but if she decides to pursue it, she must find an alternative narrative that allows her to revise her beliefs.
If she can persuade herself that she has ‘fallen n love’ she can let herself off the hook. After all, love is not something that we are expected to be able to predict, or control. If she is no longer responsible for the choices she makes, she can blindly over look the fact that her partner is flat broke and will, in all likelihood, be scrounging off her for the entire duration of their relationship.
Alternatively, a man who is striving to find a beautiful girlfriend, but ends up having fun, and sex, with a woman who has childbearing hips and an overbite, wakes up feeling torn the following morning. He had a great time with her but he doesn’t see her as suitable girlfriend material. Still, he keeps calling her, and in the absence of a a more attractive alternative, he drifts into a relationship with her. At this point, he begins to reconcile the dissonance he feels by persuading himself that it is better to settle for a plain woman because she will, by default, be less attractive to other men and therefore, is more likely to make a faithful and steadfast partner.
Because we don’t like to be wrong, cognitive dissonance can make us commit to relationships that are not necessarily ideal. This can be dangerous when it means that we decide to stay with a partner who treats us badly, or has issues with alcohol, or drugs. It is also the reason why parent’s should resist the temptation to interfere with their children’s choice of partner. The more a young adult feels that their choices are being criticised, the more determined they will be to prove their parents wrong.
Within long term relationships cognitive dissonance asserts itself in a myriad of ways, some helpful, others not so. When Richard P. Eibach and Steven E. Mock tested the role of cognitive dissonance in parental satisfaction, they found that emphasizing the ‘costs’ of parenting led to a paradoxical increase in parents’ tendency to agree with idealized statements such as: “Nonparents are more likely to be depressed than parents.” and “There is nothing more rewarding in this life than raising a child.” In the same research paper, Eibach and Mock cited evidence that the reality of parenting was a downturn in emotional well-being, a lowered frequency of positive feelings, and a higher frequency of negative emotions, yet they also found that thinking about the many costs of raising children made parents to want to spend more, rather than less time with their kids.
Cognitive Dissonance allows us to reconcile the unreconcilable, which makes it a crucial emotional crutch for unfaithful spouses. We find it difficult to take responsibility for our own bad behaviour because it conflicts with our ‘self-concept’, our view of ourselves as good and moral and functional. When who we are and who we think we are do not line up, we try to diminish our internal discomfort by finding a way to rationalise our behaviour.
The most common excuses for infidelity are a brilliant example of this: “I need more sex than you give me’ or ‘If you gave a damn about me it would never have happened”, or, “If you don’t even notice I had an affair what does that say about this relationship eh?” And so it goes on. These statements are often big lies built on tiny grains of truth, but they allow the infidel to blame their bad behaviour on someone, or something else, and this helps them to quell their internal conflict and establish cognitive congruence.
Unfortunately, such justifications often necessitate rewriting the entire relationship history and that can be literally crazy making for the person on the receiving end. It becomes impossible for them to know what was ever true in the past, and having suffered the indignity of betrayal, the newly contrived narrative somehow manages to make them responsible for their partner’s infidelity too. No wonder only 31% of marriages survive after an affair is discovered or admitted.
In an evolutionary context, cognitive dissonance was probably an important attribute because it enabled us to protect our identity and follow through on decision making, but it can be distinctly unhelpful in any kind of relationship conflict. Our unwillingness to accept that we might be at fault causes no end of problems, but awareness, and being able to recognise the small daily hypocrisies that we employ to preserve our own, highly-filtered, view of the world is the first step towards greater objectivity. Becoming more self-aware of how conflicting beliefs can impact our decision-making can help us all to self-monitor, and therefore measure the way we behave in our relationships.