Tuesday, January 25

Rant: Cognitive Dissonance

I'm usually a pretty cool-blooded person. But this is one topic that sometimes makes my blood boil. Right now I'm cool since I'm totally high on workout adrenaline. But anyway. The topic is cognitive dissonance. It's when actions don't align with beliefs, or beliefs don't align with knowledge. It manifests itself with the choice between exclusive principles - only one of which is based completely in the knowledge that underlies the relevant moral values.

The easiest example of cognitive dissonance that will strike a chord with everyone is that of food choices. I believe it's important to eat healthily - a value based in research and proven by time and prayer. I also know that I am hungry right now, and that nothing could satisfy my hunger better than (insert preferred junk food here). When I break my morals, I enter the realm of cognitive dissonance. All actions are predicated on beliefs... Which means that I actually don't believe it's important to eat healthily? What do I believe? And how should that influence my behavior?

Cognitive dissonance presents me with a number of choices. Either lift my actions to align with my beliefs (repentance), lift my beliefs to align with my knowledge (conversion), or continue on attempting to live a false duality.

What makes my blood boil is the most common, fourth choice. Discount my knowledge, whether spiritual or academic, and lower my beliefs to fit my actions.

I went to a lecture once on nutrition where the professor was supposed to present a "guilt-free" diet. I went fully expecting her to outline the latest in research and encourage listeners to follow it to the T. The only way to live a guilt-free life is to live by your morals, right? 

Instead, she spoke about the process of overcoming, ignoring, and subverting guilt. She encouraged us to eat as much dessert or anything else as we wanted, and to turn off any guilt that came from inside or outside. She felt that the guilt and stress that came from eating choices was more detrimental than eating unhealthily in the first place - but that actually eating according to a healthy lifestyle and thereby reducing guilt was impractical or too hard - hence she condoned changing our internal beliefs to align with our behavior.

Her research had at least some grounds. She was able to show that people who ate without guilt had less disease than those who did not. However, her "ideal" population was French, and the control was American. Americans eat more and have more disease in the first place. Ultimately, the lecture degenerated into encouragement to eat desserts with every meal to lessen stress and reduce undue guilt... and I left very much dismayed that she actually believed what she had taught.

I think that too often people look at life and its challenges and decide that it is too hard. Too hard to live the gospel, or to do what is right. Hence, what is right must actually be different in my case. It's too hard to love my neighbor, so that commandment doesn't apply to me, or it doesn't apply to him, or I can love him even if I refuse to speak to him, right? Life is hard. It was meant to be hard. It will only get harder. But that is no excuse to shoot for less than the ideal in everything we do... to cut ourselves short, discount our knowledge, and take the easy way out just because it's easy. I don't understand why anyone would settle for less than the best. Anything else has never ended up working in my life.

I look at my life. There are a lot of things I know through revelation from God. It would be easy to ignore them and follow the normal stream of life... to let others define me and to believe something other than what I know. But it isn't worth it. The things I learn by turning to God and following Him are worth any price. Hopefully when I'm faced next with cognitive dissonance in my life, I will lift my morals to adhere to the light I have been given - conversion - and lift my actions through repentance to align.


  1. Sometimes we just get tired, rather than thinking it's "too hard." I've never thought a commandment didn't apply to me, even when I chose not to obey it. Even though I'd love to continue shooting for the ideal, there are times the strength and the will are just not in me.

  2. Working with the young women and having seven children of my own, one of the things I try to impress upon them is that as divine children of God, they can do HARD things. I think that goes hand in hand with what you've said. It isn't easy, isn't supposed to be. That's how we grow, by doing the hard things. Sailing through life without any difficulty was the plan of Satan. The Savior's plan is hard, we knew it and we picked it.

  3. I was very interested in your thoughts today. I have long pondered the apparent cognitive dissonance that seems to pervade the world today - especially in how many people will discount their knowledge and lower their beliefs to fit their actions.

    It is a sad thing when one determines that his actions are superior to available proven knowledge, the tried experience of himself and others, and the revelations given to chosen prophets from God. Yet this seems to be a common attitude and a way to deal with life. It leans against self improvement and the ideal of choosing the right simply because it is right. It sets man on a shaky foundation of thinking that whatever he does is okay, because it suits him. The foolish man builds his house upon the sand.

    Easy words to write, much more difficult to live by. But the level of difficulty of an effort does not necessarily determine its value or its worthiness of our efforts. If anything, "the harder to achieve, the more worth having" should guide us. I believe we are all ultimately happier when we seek the highest and best that is in us, and not conform to the world's much lower standards.

  4. Amen. This has been making me crazy lately, too, but I couldn't have "ranted" about it nearly as articulately as you did.

  5. Thank you! I needed this today - especially as I just started this week to live by what I believe - to eat healthy. I'm slowly switching to whole grain pastas and bread, resisting the junk food, drinking more water, getting the fruits and veggies, etc. and exercising regularly. My migraines were so bad the last couple of weeks that I can't continue to ignore my thoughts (inspiration) of needing to eat healthier. I don't have time for debilitating migraines. I owe it to my children to take care of myself so that I can take care of them. I think the Word of Wisdom is one of the commandments most easily and readily ignored. It doesn't help that the food industry packs junk into all of our food. It doesn't help that we are letting them by continuing to buy it. I'm starting to realize how important it is to let our spirits rule our bodies in this way. I think if we can take control of that, it will be easier to be in control of other areas of our lives as well. I'm excited to exercise my will-power in fueling my body the right way to see if it will prevent future migraines and to see if that will-power will also translate to other areas of my life. I love reading your blog. Thank you for staying strong!


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