In this article I am going to discuss some theories on the source of everyday depression or malaise. The experience of feeling like “nothing matters” or “nothing I do will have any consequences” is one that many people are faced with.
In the article on how to stress less feel better and relax, I talk about some of the common sources of people’s rumination, or repetitive thoughts. What I will elaborate on in this article is the more sinister nature of rumination. Particularly how rumination can distract your from your greater purpose or desires in life.
The reason that rumination is such an effective form of distraction is that is loops you into a closed thinking cycle that is defined by previously held beliefs, assumptions and points of view. The person trapped in rumination is unable to step back and look at their overall reasoning process.
This lack of ability to dispassionately judge your own reasoning process causes your to miss the instances when your are experiencing in cognitive dissonance. when in this state, the same aspects of the mind that loop you into a thought pattern engage in reducing, or the process of bringing your attitudes and beliefs in line.
The problem with this reducing is that a constant stream of rumination can distract you from realizing you are making excuses or “reasoning” away this dissonance. When This process is repeated enough time it can take you off the course you have set to reach just about any goal.
It has been said in many ways that you can have anything you want, but not everything you want, so long as you are willing to pay the price. However, without an understanding of cognitive dissonance and how your mind attempts to reduce this dissonance, you will be unable to pay the price to achieve any goal.
What Is Cognitive Dissonance
While I have a fairly good understanding of cognitive dissonance, I would rather defer to the experts on wikipedia as this is a somewhat “clinical” term.
“cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas, or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.” – Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is the depression or very real pain people feel when they are confronted with competing beliefs or ideas. Specifically, cognitive dissonance is experienced when an individual realizes that actions they are taking or activities they are involved in are not in line with their beliefs.
Why It’s Important To Understand Cognitive Dissonance
Before I go any further I want to elaborate on why this is important. It is very easy to delude yourself about what you want out of life or what your goals are. The purpose of this delusion is to prevent you from acknowledging that what you want is in no way connected to how you are living your life.
This idea reminds me of a famous Henry Ford quote “Thinking is the hardest work of all, that’s why so few engage in it”. Whether you are thinking about updating a business plan, ending a relationship, or changing the trajectory of your career, thinking can be very difficult.
One of the man reasons for this difficulty is that thinking forces your to confront cognitive dissonance. By breaking out of the cycle of ruminative thought, you are forced to dispassionately assess your course of action against your attitudes and beliefs. Often times, this assessment forces the painful realization that you have been acting in opposition to your beliefs.
Once you begin to experience the pain of cognitive dissonance there are a number of potential ways you can reduce this dissonance. Understanding the basic process of cognitive dissonance and reduction of dissonance allows you to be aware of when it is taking place. Hopefully, this awareness will allow you to better orchestrate the process in your life to make better decisions.
Your Options For Reducing Cognitive Dissonance
Upon experiencing the onset of cognitive dissonance the mind will want to make a break for one of four courses of action. The purpose of this quick reaction is to dissipate this cognitive dissonance as quickly as possible. The four normal courses of action the mind takes to reduce cognitive dissonance are discussed below. I give an example of the beliefs that the dissonance is based on followed by examples of the four ways you can deal with the dissonance.
Example: Say you stop to think one day and decide you want to become stronger. You also know that most people who are strong work out at the gym with weights or do some type of calisthenics training. Looking back on your recent past you realize you havent really been consistent about going to the gym at all. This belief that you want to be strong combine with the realization that you have not been acting on that belief by going to the gym consistently creates a twinge of mental anguish in the form of cognitive dissonance. In order to reduce that dissonance you (your mind) can reduce this dissonance in one of four ways.
- Change behavior or cognition: In this case you could simply say “from now on I will follow a training program and strength train in the gym 3 days per week”. If you truly believe that you will follow this program and do in fact follow it in the future, the cognitive dissonance will be reduced or eliminated.
- Justify behavior or cognition by changing the conflicting cognition: In this case you would say to yourself “well, strength really isn’t that important, I don’t want to be strong that much”. If you convince yourself this is true, or your mind convinces you that this is true the cognitive dissonance will dissipate or stop.
- Justify behavior or cognition by adding new cognitions: In this case you would say something like “I do want to get strong, but I am really busy with work right now, I will get strong in 6 months when I am less busy with work”. Again, if you or your mind convince you that you actually will follow through with this course of action you will feel better.
- Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs: In this case you would simply ignore the apparent truths you are faced with by saying something like “I am getting stronger”. Again, if you convinced yourself of this you would soon feel better.
While reading this, you most likely had one of two reactions. Either you found this informative and want to learn more, or you were a little disturbed by some of the more “excuse” oriented processes your mind can take to dissipate unwanted angst.
What’s important to realize is that none of the four processes are necessarily right or wrong, it’s simply the context they are used in that makes them more or less useful. There are instances where facing a little bit of cognitive dissonance can be helpful. Similarly, there are instances where taking the quickest path to reducing cognitive dissonance is the best course of action.
When Reducing Cognitive Dissonance Goes Wrong
Cognitive dissonance can be useful or harmful depending on the context it is used in. A good example of useful and harmful contexts comes from John M. Grohol, Psy.D. in his article on fighting cognitive dissonance.
“Cognitive dissonance isn’t always something bad — it has been successfully used to help people change their unhealthy attitudes and behaviors. For instance, if a woman holds the belief that women should be super-thin and not eat in a healthy manner, cognitive dissonance can be used to successfully change those kinds of beliefs and the resulting eating-disordered behavior.” – Fighting Cognitive Dissonacne
The main issues related to cognitive dissoanance arise when we are not aware of it operating below the surface. Cognitive dissonance and it’s resulting reduction allow us to make excuses for actions we do not believe in. If this process goes on unchecked, it can set us up to make poor decision in the future.
For example, if you look at the example I give above about the man who wants to get stronger in the gym, he starts off by using cognitive dissonance to give himself a reason for why he cannot immediately start a routine in the gym.
Whether or not this is a reason or an excuse is all dependent on the context. In the example, he tells himself that he is busy with work and will start the routine in 6 months. On the one hand this might be a real reason that accurately reflects his situation at work.
On the other hand this “reason”, being busy at work, might be a lie he is telling himself to justify his failure to plan and execute a workout routine. The only way to be able to tell the difference between a lie and a genuine reason is the context in which they are used.
For example if this “reason” turns out to be the first in a string of reasons for why this man cannot change his behavior he is simply lying to himself and setting himself up for poor decisions in the future.
This lie will allow him to make excuses about his lack of follow through with his goals which will set him up to make similar decision in the future that lead him no closer to his goals.
How To Avoid Common Errors In Reducing Cognitive Dissonance
While there is not sure fire way to prevent any type of faulty reduction of cognitive dissonance, there are ways to reduce it. One of the most important ways is through tracking your results.
As the famous management consultant Peter F. Drucker used to say, “What gets measured gets managed”. Nowhere is this clearer then in human behavior. The human mind makes it very easy to delude yourself. In fact, the mind makes it downright convenient to ignore errors in your own thinking process.
One of the best ways to spot these errors is to track the choices you made in the past and look at the results those choices produced in your life. Using the above example of the man that wants to get fit, he could track his decision to push off committing to a workout routine.
After pushing off committing to a workout routine he could look at his results and weight whether or not that decision was based on dispassionate reasoning or the simple desire to avoid the discomfort of the cognitive dissonance of facing his conflicting beliefs and behaviors.
At this point he could realize that his still unmet desire to get into shape is more important then the temporary relief he gets from pushing off this desire into the future. This realization would prevent him from making another faulty decision to give himself an excuse to delay further.
Distraction Is The Enemy Of Dispassionate Reasoning
The primary obstacle we face when thinking through a problem is distraction. Rather then face the cognitive dissonance that presents itself we become distracted. This makes sense when you think about the alternative.
The realization that we have not been living in a way that is congruent with our beliefs is painful. It’s easier to make a quick excuse for our lack of results and simply move on to a more pleasant thought. This is where purposeful thought becomes important.
The ability to think on one problem or issue to the exclusion of any distractions is extremely important in identifying and working through any source of cognitive dissonance in our lives. Without this ability it’s too easy to make the same mistake or wrong decision over and over.
In the article on how to stress less feel better and relax, I discuss why it’s so important to learn to relax your mind. By relaxing your mind you are able to activate those parts of the brain that inhibit the fight or flight branch of the autonomic nervous system.
Without this ability to inhibit the fight or flight response, it’s too easy to get caught in distracting rumination. Once you learn to relax your mind and overall physiology, it becomes much easier to think through challenging problems. seriously, if you have not read that article, it is a pre-requisite to being able to reason through problems dispassionately.
If you are unsure of your ability to relax and calm yourself, that should be your number one priority.
Common Causes Of Cognitive Dissonance And Depression
Arguably the number one cause of cognitive dissonance and depression is working in an un-fulfilling vocation (Job). The average person works anywhere from 30-80 hours per week. Given the fact that you have 168 hours in a week, that is 18% to 48% of the total hours you have in a week. If you subtract 8 hours per day for sleep that’s 27% to 71% of your total waking hours.
If you are performing a job you can’t stand get out now. Of course you have to weight the costs and benefits. If you have a family that you love and want to support, perhaps your happiness at work is not the greatest measure for your overall success and happiness.
However, it’s important to consider that your own happiness greatly affects those around you. From this point of vie it seems reasonable to at lest consider a different type of work that might be more enjoyable. This is a subject that is well represented in the psychological literature.
While there are a number of studies that document the negative health impacts of working a job you hate, ill quote a rather infamous researcher on psychiatric health. Bruce Levine PHD had this to say about what he calls the “anti-authoritarian” personality type. While he is not speaking about work in general, this personality type suffers from many of the same issues as anyone who is engage in distasteful work.
“In my career as a psychologist, I have talked with hundreds of people previously diagnosed by other professionals with oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, anxiety disorder and other psychiatric illnesses, and I am struck by (1) how many of those diagnosed are essentially anti-authoritarians, and (2) how those professionals who have diagnosed them are not.
Anti-authoritarians question whether an authority is a legitimate one before taking that authority seriously. Evaluating the legitimacy of authorities includes assessing whether or not authorities actually know what they are talking about, are honest, and care about those people who are respecting their authority. And when anti-authoritarians assess an authority to be illegitimate, they challenge and resist that authority—sometimes aggressively and sometimes passive-aggressively, sometimes wisely and sometimes not.” – MadInAmerica
He goes on to talk about how this personality type is usually identified as being unable to comply with the demands of their vocation. It is at work that this person is usually identified as unfit, mentally ill, or generally unable to cope.
In these circumstances, the person is often already experiencing some type of mood disturbance or depression. If they were not experiencing these issues initially, they are bound to experience them once identified as “disturbed”. Bruce even talks about his own experience in school to be a psychiatrist.
“In graduate school, I discovered that all it took to be labeled as having “issues with authority” was to not kiss up to a director of clinical training whose personality was a combination of Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, and Howard Cosell. When I was told by some faculty that I had “issues with authority,” I had mixed feelings about being so labeled.” –MadInAmerica
Again, he is not speaking about the experience causing depression, only the idea that you can be labeled as being “disturbed” without having any apparent functional abnormalities. Many people who suffer from workplace depression are scrutinized in a similar manner for their inability to conform. If this is your issue, don’t worry, it might be a good thing in the long run so long as you are able to keep your cool and keep functioning. In the introduction to his piece on the “anti-authoritarian” personality type Bruce laments the lack of people who fit this personality profile.
“Some activists lament how few anti-authoritarians there appear to be in the United States. One reason could be that many natural anti-authoritarians are now psychopathologized and medicated before they achieve political consciousness of society’s most oppressive authorities.” –MadInAmerica
If you or someone you know can relate to any of the above descriptions it may be because of issues with conformity. For many people the inability to conform, in the workplace or otherwise is a near constant source of cognitive dissonance.
Regardless of the reason, the important thing is to be aware of cognitive dissonance operating in your life. so long as you understand the source, you can make an reasoned decision to change a behavior or not. If you are not in a position to change some aspect of your life that is causing you cognitive dissonance you can make a decision to focus your attention elsewhere until your level of control over your lifestyle changes.
While it is certainly difficult to completely ignore any source of cognitive dissonance in your life, it is important to have the ability to should you need it. For example, if you have to maintain a behavior you don’t believe in, say working a job you hate temporarily to feed your family, you can choose to lessen your focus on your dislike for the job in order to maintain a positive outlook on life.
Making a conscious decision to accept the things you cannot or will not change is far better then deluding yourself into thinking you like them. In order to make accurate decisions in the future you must not delude yourself about your present situation. It’s far better to accept what you have chosen or what you must do and then focus your attention on the things you genuinely love.
The ability to focus your attention on the things you truly love is what will allow you to expand what you love in other areas of your life. For example, using the situation above where you must temporarily work a job you despise in order to feed your family; you should acknowledge that the job is not ideal and then focus on the positive aspects of your life like having a family and having enough money to provide for them.
Facing the reality that you are working a job you do not like is a form of accepting the circumstance. By doing this you allow yourself to keep your options open while you are working a job that is not ideal. In short, you maintain your sanity. If you were to take the path of least resistance and unconsciously reduce your cognitive dissonance, you would simply convince yourself that you loved your job.
In this case you would be much less likely to actively seek out a better job. You would also diminish your capacity to make accurate decisions about the type of work you would enjoy in the future.
A Quick Solution To Cognitive Dissonance
As mentioned throughout this post, the easiest way to reduce the affects of cognitive dissonance in your own life is to learn to focus your attention. By developing this one simple skill you will continually gain awareness of where you are focusing your thinking and how that affects your behaviors.
Plenty of psychologists have established the link between focus, attention and motivation. The conclusion is that what you focus on will determine what you are draw to and motivated to achieve. This is the reason that any type of successful habit change is primarily the result of a consistent shift in attention.
One of my favorite studies on this topic comes from the book RAPT Attention and The Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher. In this book she discusses how Northwestern University Neuroscientist Marsel Muslam contucted research to show that the brains response to stimuli is determined by focus.
In this study he monitored the brains of subjects when they were both fasted and well fed. During the periods of observation he looked at the subjects brain while they were shown images of tasty food and common household tools. He took for granted that the people were more focused on food when they were hungry.
What the scientists noted while conducting Masel’s study was that the areas of the brain that had to do with registering desirability reacted much more strongly to the food in the patients who were fasted. Again, given that the study takes for grated that fasted patients are thinking about and therefore focused on food makes this study particularly relevant for anyone looking to achieve a goal, change a habit, or purse a new behavior.
The ability to train your attention and determine what your mind is going to focus on leads to higher levels of motivation to achieve the object of your focus. Whether the object of your focus is 1,000,000 in the bank or a piece of cheesecake, learning to focus your attention will help you get it.
While this might seem trivial when discussing cheesecake, it is paramount when considering the regret that comes with missed opportunities and poor decision making. In the long run this too can be remedied by developing your ability to focus and concentrate. After all, with that ability in place you can always choose to focus on the thing that pleases you most or gives you the mos hope as a sort of survival mechanism.
In fact, the ability to focus on the thought that is most pleasing or hopeful is the very attribute that psychologist Victor Frankel discusses in his masterpiece Man’s Search For Meaning. If you aren’t familiar with the book is details that psychological triumph of Nazi death camp prisoners who were able to maintain hope and cheer in the face of their relatively bleak circumstances.
If people in Nazi death camps can maintain hope and bearing, there is a chance for nearly anyone! Anyway, the point is that the ability to focus on the object of your choosing is a skill that should be refined throughout life. I detail some of the most productive methods for attention training in my article on how to stress less and relax.
Needless to say, the skills mentioned in that article are a pre-requisite for any high level reasoning. Establishing a baseline ability to focus your attention should be your number one priority if you are fighting off depression or trying to thin through some serious cognitive dissonance.
Wrap Up And Recommended Reading
If you enjoyed this post I would highly recommend checking out my articles of how to stress less feel better and relax as well as my article on how to reduce stress and lose weight with your mind. Those article detail the specifics behind attention training as it relates to your cognition and physiology. I would also recommend looking at the book RAPT Attention and The Focused Life as well as You are Not Your Brain and The User’s Guide To The Human Mind.
Any one of those three books is a good start to discover the many ways your mind can distract you from cognitive dissonane and cause depression in the long run. If you think you are too smart for such simply titled books, think again. The more intelligent you are the more formidable an opponent you face in becoming aware of your subtle thought patterns. Anyway, thank you for reading and I hope you got something from that article.