Cognitive Dissonance

By Chaplain (Major) Donald W. EhrkeNovember 3, 2015

Chaplain (Major) Donald W. Ehrke
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Not long ago a husband, "Todd", described the violent nature of his wife, "Lynn." For twenty minutes, Todd painfully illustrated instances of regular, severe emotional abuse coupled with occasional physical mistreatment. When asked to assess Lynn and their 17-year marriage, he explained that he had a "great" wife and a "very happy" marriage.

How often have we, as chaplain counselors, heard people like Todd misinterpret their marriages, families, and workplaces? In counseling sessions like these, we often discover that individuals have experienced cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance (first explained by Leon Festinger) occurs when we are exposed to situations that contradict our beliefs and behavior. Such contradictions create discomfort; in response people will alter their attitudes to better match their circumstances. In the example above, Todd was in a state of contradiction -- he had spent 17 years of his life with a person who didn't deserve his devotion. Rather than admitting that his long-lasting loyalty was misplaced, Todd raised the evaluation of his wife and marriage to match his efforts.

Everyone experiences cognitive dissonance every day. For instance, I know that the environment is important yet I drive a fossil-fuel powered vehicle; in response I tell myself "I need to drive to work" (I don't have a choice). However, sometimes cognitive dissonance causes problems. The old saying "admitting that there's a problem is the first step in fixing it" comes into play -- how can someone repair a broken marriage if they can't admit that it's unhappy?

Counseling sessions, by nature, are designed to challenge beliefs and behaviors. Cognitive dissonance results in misbeliefs that enable people to excuse unbearable situations. When these misinterpretations are threatened in counseling, people are re-exposed to cognitive dissonance. In turn, counselees may become defensive or confused. Sometimes, however, they become enlightened.

There are several methods chaplain counselors may employ to tackle cognitive dissonance. The first is to allow counselees to reevaluate the person they're misinterpreting. This is accomplished by suggesting a belief opposite their own. By "letting the cat out of the bag" some counselees feel free to agree with the truth. In Todd's case, it was suggested that he had a bad wife and marriage. After a moment of pause, Todd agreed. He could truthfully assess his marriage -- and handle the discomfort of doing so -- because someone else did it first.

Many people will not be as easily swayed as Todd. Another method is to ask counselees to evaluate themselves in ways that relieve cognitive dissonance. A chaplain counselor might have asked Todd, "Instead of evaluating Lynn, let's evaluate your qualities." Todd might initially describe himself as sad and confused, but eventually he would begin to list qualities such as "loyal, committed, and strong." Todd could explain his 17-year marriage in ways that demonstrate his good qualities rather than pretending that Lynn shared them.

Finally, a chaplain counselor could reduce Todd's sense of choice. Cognitive dissonance is highest when individuals believe they have chosen someone or something; we feel that we must defend our decisions regardless of their outcomes. In Todd's case, he could decide that he was staying in the marriage for the sake of his faith and his children. Todd can't change his faith and he can't give up his children -- and because he feels that he's not free to leave his marriage he can truthfully measure it.

By recognizing cognitive dissonance and its subsequent distortion of fact, chaplains can apply therapies that lead to truth -- even uncomfortable truth. Then we, as healers, can help people better understand the sources of their concerns as well as their solutions. Like Todd, no one should pretend life is better than it is; instead, we should make the most of the time God has given us.

Article written by: Chaplain (Major) Donald W. Ehrke

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