Have you ever done something you wouldn’t normally do and then felt pretty crappy about it? Something that you know wouldn’t be good for you, but you did it anyway? Maybe you had a hard day at work and the idea of going home to cook a meal is the absolute last thing you want to do. So, you roll up to your local burger joint and wind up ordering a bacon double cheeseburger, upsized fries and a 40oz coke. Now, your rational mind knows that even the salad here was an iffy choice, but you’ve plowed through a day or two worth of calories and you’re left feeling uncomfortable. I’m not even talking about how your poor stomach must feel. I’m talking about a mental discomfort, much like guilt, as you’ve acted outside of the beliefs and values that you hold. This my friend, is cognitive dissonance.
What Is Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort or stress you feel when your behaviours, values and beliefs contradict each other. In the example above, it comes about because you know how to make good food choices and you value eating healthy but elected not to.
Or, perhaps you realize that smoking is likely to kill you, but you choose to light up anyway.
It can also come about when learning new information. For example, maybe you’re watching TV, about to dig into a hot dog. Suddenly a news report comes on the television talking about processed meats being labelled as a group 1 carcinogen. This is likely to give you some pause about the food you’re about to put in your mouth. And so it should.
How Cognitive Dissonance Is Handled
What do you do to assuage this nasty feeling? There are a few things people do to relieve cognitive dissonance.
Add New Thoughts
Some people choose to rationalize their actions, thereby minimizing the belief they contradicted. However, we all know rationalizations will only get us so far.
It was a special occasion or something, right? OK, fair enough. That might help for a bit and could be a reasonable conclusion if it really is a one-off. However, next time, you’re going to be feeling it again, and you’ll need to come up with better excuses for yourself in order to make that feeling go away. This can go on a while until you reach some sort of breaking point where these rationalizations aren’t relieving your guilt anymore. Eventually, that brain of yours is going to remind you what rational thought is and the jig will be up.
Change Your Belief
You seek out information that conflicts with the belief you just ignored, and convince yourself that meal was perfectly appropriate. After all, if you order it next time without the bun it must be keto or something, right?
Seeking conflicting information to your belief could be useful if your beliefs could use a tune-up. So, if you’re still hating on anyone with purple hair because of that one kid who picked on you in high school, changing your belief is a reasonable solution.
However, if you know that eating well is important to your health, but you seek out evidence to suggest that your recent meal is not causing all kinds of havoc in your body, you’re not doing yourself any favours.
The point is, we feel this discomfort for a very good reason. This is your brain telling you it’s time to wise up and grow a little. This leads you to a third option.
Change Your Behaviour
You suck it up, realize that you feel shitty about your bad decision and make a better choice next time. Change the action that made you feel uneasy and act in line with your beliefs going forward.
Now, I fully realize that this is easier said than done. This is the hardest of the three solutions, but also the one that can result in personal growth and lasting feelings of well-being.
Why Is This Important?
So why am I yammering on about cognitive dissonance on a blog about plant-based eating? Well, because this is something you will face often, whether you are aware of it or not. Awareness is a powerful tool. It helps us recognize where there are patterns we need to break free from. Be aware of your attempts to rationalize or minimize your beliefs. Notice when this is happening around you. Once you’re aware of it, you’ll start to see it everywhere. From comments on social media to news reports and articles online.
I notice whenever a study comes out with unpopular results, you immediately start seeing rationalizations and minimizing talk happening in the media. When the WHO added processed meats to the list of group 1 carcinogens, this minimizing began to happen right away. After all, people love to hear good news about their bad habits, so when they hear bad news, they start to rationalize it away. To this end, we saw lots of articles being written telling people not to worry, processed meat is not as bad as smoking, or asbestos (other group 1 carcinogens). I suppose that depends on your view of cancer. A little cancer is definitely better than a lot of cancer. However, if asked, I believe most people would prefer no cancer.
Things to Keep in Mind
People’s beliefs surrounding food are extremely personal and deeply rooted. It can be an issue as heated as religion or politics.
Think about it, if you grew up eating a certain way and suddenly learned that it wasn’t actually in line with your health goals, you’re definitely going to experience some cognitive dissonance. It’s not an easy thing to hear, and it can be difficult to reconcile that.
What’s even more difficult is that you’re likely to become a source of discomfort for others around you when they learn you’ve made some changes in your life. Reactions to this can be unpredictable. That’s OK to a point. They are working through their own attempts to quiet this uncomfortable feeling in their mind. All you can do is be open, considerate and kind. Everyone is on their own journey, and that’s perfectly fine, as long as you don’t let it become the thing that derails you.
I’m saying it’s perfectly OK to go against the grain and do something for your health even if those around you don’t want to hear it. If anybody chooses not to be in your life anymore due to what you choose to put in your mouth, know that it’s completely on them working through their own internal stuff and move on.
The Bottom Line
Cognitive dissonance is a major factor in behaviour and decision-making. It’s typically handled by adding thoughts and rationalizations, changing beliefs, or changing behaviours. All 3 of these can be valid solutions, depending on the situation.
I grew up believing that I needed to eat meat to grow strong muscles, and drink milk to have strong bones. When I began to come across information to the contrary, I continued to research and arm myself with knowledge. Then, I changed my beliefs, knowing that these things were not true and that there were healthier ways to fuel my body. Then, I was ready to change my behaviour to match my new beliefs.
The point is, we need to recognize these behaviours in ourselves. Do you engage in rationalizing and minimizing your beliefs on a regular basis? Perhaps this is something you can examine to decide if your beliefs or actions are really the thing that needs to change.
It’s also important to recognize these behaviours in others. If someone is being rude to you about your food choices, or arguing your beliefs, are their points valid? Or are they just trying to convince themselves that what they are doing is right? It’s important to be able to weed through these things. Especially if you allow the opinions of others to cloud your decision-making. Be aware, so you can do what’s best for you, instead of just following the crowd.
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Feature image credit: Photo by Alexandre Chambon on Unsplash