Cognitive Dissonance in Addiction and Recovery

Making Sense of the Irrational

People are able to believe fully in things that would not make much rational sense to other people. They can also engage in behavior that will be obviously illogical to other people, but that person will believe they have a rational explanation for this behavior. This explains why people are able to drink themselves to death even though their family and friends are doing all they can to help. The addict is not being deliberately willful is because they believe their own justifications. It is believed that part of the reason for why these people can act so irrationally is cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance Explained

If an individual holds two opposing cognitions at the same time in their minds it can lead to a sense of tension and discomfort. This is referred to as cognitive dissonance. This type of conflict often involves differences between people’s thoughts and their behavior. The individual overcomes the discomfort by taking a number of possible actions including:

* Rationalizing the internal conflict by adopting other ideas that work to explain it away.
* Changing their behavior to fit more comfortably with their thoughts
* Changing their thoughts to fit in better with their behavior

Substance Abuse as an Example of Cognitive Dissonance

Those who are involved in substance abuse will usually have to deal with cognitive dissonance. This is because there is so much compelling evidence for why this behavior is dangerous. The individual is likely to be aware of this but they will overcome the conflict by either:

* Giving up the substance abuse.
* Changing their opinion of substance abuse so that the behavior appears less dangerous.
* The individual can also adapt a new idea that will help them escape the dissonance. For example, they might accept that substance abuse causes damage to other people, but they can handle it and so are not in danger.

Another good example of cognitive dissonance in action involves end of the world cults. Members of these groups will be fully convinced that divine revelation has produced a date for when the world is going to end. When the world does not end as they predicted many of these individuals will still not abandon the group or the prophecy. They will adopt a new idea such as the belief that it was their actions that delayed the end of the world. It is easier for them to add further delusions to their beliefs than to accept that they were wrong in the first place.

Cognitive Dissonance and the Fear of Appearing Foolish

Cognitive dissonance can occur because people fear appearing foolish or ignorant. They use different strategies to protect their self-image. This type of internal conflict also occurs because people feel guilty or uneasy about holding these opposing cognitions – they don’t want to think of themselves as illogical or inconsistent. These internal conflicts are hard to live with, and if not dealt with the individual will feel bad about themselves. Humans are so good at dealing with cognitive dissonance that the process occurs without them even noticing it.

The Fox and the Grapes

An often cited story that is used as an example of Cognitive dissonance is to be found in the Aesop tales. The Fox and the Grapes is the story of a fox that spots some delicious looking grapes hanging from a nearby branch. The animal really desires these grapes but is unable to think of any way to reach them – the branch is just a bit too high. The fox overcomes their discomfort with the situation by deciding that these grapes are not good to eat anyway.

Implications of Cognitive Dissonance Theory

The theory of cognitive dissonance has serious implications. It describes how people will be willing to increase their own delusional thinking in order to protect their current understanding. This goes a long way to explaining how individuals seem comfortable to hold onto ideas that appear so obviously irrational to other people. This theory may have important implications for those who are caught in addiction or who building a life in recovery.

Dangers of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance can be highly dangerous because:

* It means that people are able to hold onto ideas and beliefs that may be causing destruction in their life.
* The individual is able to justify poor decisions. If people do not learn from their mistakes they are doomed to keep repeating them.
* It makes it easy for one group of people to turn another group into the enemy.
* It can be the basis for all types of bigotry, hatred, and racism.
* It keeps people trapped in ignorance. The individual only hears what they want to hear.
* The individual may be willing to go to extremes to protect their fallacious thinking.

Cognitive Dissonance in Addiction

Those individuals who are caught in addiction will usually have to contend with plenty of cognitive dissonance. There will be a great deal of evidence for how alcohol or drugs is destroying their life, but they will still continue to view these substances as their friend. They can do this by blaming their problems on other factors not connected with the substance abuse. From their point of view they drink too much or use drugs because of the problems in their life. Rather than viewing the addiction as their enemy they can see it as their only real friend. Examples of the outcome of cognitive dissonance in the addict’s life include:

* The idea that people who do not abuse alcohol or drugs are boring or in lacking character.
* The conviction that substance abuse is a sign of artistic depth.
* Holding the belief that people who give up an addiction experience a life of deprivation and that such individuals can never really be happy.
* Those addicts who can see how their substance abuse is causing problems will also hold onto the idea that the good times will one day return.
* The conviction that life is miserable and the only comfort is alcohol and drugs.

This cognitive dissonance is usually tied in with denial. The fortunate ones eventually see through their denial and decide that they have had enough. They have hit their personal rock bottom and are ready to change their life.

Cognitive Dissonance in Recovery

Just because people have managed to overcome their addiction does not mean that they are immune to cognitive dissonance. This type of thinking can continue to plague them in recovery and lead to problems such as:

* The individual has gone off track in their recovery, but they have created justifications for this. This can mean that they develop dry drunk syndrome.
* People can be heading towards relapse, but cognitive dissonance means that they are able to ignore the warning signs.
* The individual is living a life in recovery that is far from ideal. This is a shame because there are so many wonderful possibilities in recovery.
* People with an addictive personality are at risk from going from one type of maladaptive behavior to another. They will be able to invent all types of beliefs to justify this new dangerous obsession – just like they did with the old one.

How to Avoid Cognitive Dissonance

The dangers associated with cognitive dissonance can make life miserable for the individual and those around them. In order to avoid cognitive dissonance the individual can:

* Develop beginner’s mind when it comes time to learn new things. This means that the individual briefly puts aside their current beliefs and opinions to consider new information clearly.
* Learn to think critically. This way the individual will always be questioning their own thoughts and opinions.
* It is not a good idea for people to hold onto beliefs and opinions too tightly. If better information comes along they should be willing to make changes to the way they think.
* It is important for people to not associate their self worth with their beliefs and opinions. Just because one of their opinions turns out to be flawed does not mean that they are inherently flawed.
* The individual does not need to have beliefs and opinions about every issue. Sometimes the best attitude is don’t know.

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