Cognitive dissonance is a concept used to describe the feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment and are thus motivated to reduce the dissonance by either changing their thoughts or changing their actions in order to create consistency. Wikipedia has a diagram, but I’m just going to give you some examples from my own life that will be even better than a diagram.
The first way I used cognitive dissonance theory was around my body image. I highly recommend this for all women, especially those who spent their teen years bent over a toilet bowl. (Where the fuck’s my overshare minion?!)
Anyway, I decided that walking around thinking I was fat was causing me too much discomfort: both in my head and in the way my pants fit. Now, I could have done a couple of different things. I could have reduced my calorie intake, increased my exercise level and desperately tried to lose weight like I’d done a gagillion other times in my life. Or, I could have just stopped thinking I was fat and bought pants that fit me better.
Okay, I hope you’re sitting down, because the next paragraph is where cognitive dissonance gets fun!
I opted for plan B: stop thinking I’m fat and get bigger pants. And you know what happened? First of all, my head was calm and content. I had eliminated the dissonance. And…I ended up losing weight. Naturally! Without even trying! Hurry! Give me another thought to put an exclamation point after!
Isn’t that amazing? When I relaxed my mind, when I stopped trying so hard and simply used acceptance of my current state, the end result was even better than if I’d tried really, really hard to change. But, and this is cool, even if I hadn’t lost any weight after I’d started accepting my body, it would not have mattered, because I’d already changed my thinking and was happy exactly the way I was. And my pants fit.
I’ve used the concept of cognitive dissonance and acceptance as a means to create peace, which has often resulted in change, many times in my life. But the reason I’m writing about it today is because there’s this guy named Shawn Achor, who works at a college in Cambridge. The one near Boston. He states that if every day we say three things we are grateful for, journal, exercise, meditate and perform random acts of kindness, that we can increase our positive thinking and that this in turn increases productivity and creativity.
Think of that! Positive thinking increases productivity. Not pushing ourselves to the point of pain, but positive thinking. It’s awesome!
I would argue that this positive thinking Shawn talks about is very similar to the kind of state that is produced when we stop beating ourselves up and start just accepting where we’re at in an attempt to reduce dissonance. That then, and only then, does real change occur. Luckily, I just have this adorable blog and not a tenure track at a school in Boston dependent on whether my theory is true.
Now if we could just get those men who sit around watching football during a family gathering, while everyone around them is putting out food and cleaning, to feel LESS GUILTY about what they are doing, maybe they’ll feel better about themselves and actually get up and help. Sorry, my anti-sarcasm minion is away for the weekend.
Oh, what the hell. Here’s a diagram: