Cognitive Dissonance For a More Perfect Understanding

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by Becca

Image Credit: Mark Klotz

Parenting doesn’t make people happier, according to a fairly recent study cited in Psychology Today.

We only convince ourselves that we are happier as parents because being a parent is supposed to make you happier. In reality, parenting results in “a downturn in emotional well-being, a lowered frequency of positive feelings, and a higher frequency of negative emotions”. The Psychology Today article goes on to argue that parental love and happiness is just cognitive dissonance.

That article was the first time I had heard the term, and, while I didn’t agree with the article, I couldn’t put my finger on why. I didn’t really think about it much more until I heard the term applied to Josh Weed, a gay Mormon man who is in a straight marriage (married to a woman). The criticism came from a gay ex-Mormon who didn’t want to read Josh’s “coming out” piece because, he said, “I’m worried that I won’t be able to deal with reading about the cognitive dissonance required to be in this guy’s head.”

The Eye of the Beholder

It was a year or so between these two significant encounters I had with the term, and I didn’t feel like I had a solid understanding of what cognitive dissonance really meant. So I did a little research (which means I went to Wikipedia).

Wikipedia says that cognitive dissonance is a “discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously… Dissonance is aroused when people are confronted with information that is inconsistent with their beliefs.”

It is not just the existence of conflicting cognitions that is the determiner of experiencing cognitive dissonance – there must also be a sense of discomfort. But who is the judge of whether or not a person is experiencing discomfort? Perhaps what we perceive to be “conflicting cognitions”, and therefore the cause of discomfort and cognitive dissonance, may be to another person perfectly harmonious cognitions. Thus, only the individual himself can determine if he is experiencing cognitive dissonance.

When faced with information that is inconsistent with our beliefs we will naturally experience some level of discomfort. There is something a little unnerving about discovering new information that seems contrary to our current beliefs – especially when those beliefs are particularly fundamental to our identity, such as religious beliefs.

The theory of cognitive dissonance is often used to criticize people, but is cognitive dissonance really a bad thing?

A Motivator for Spiritual Progress

Due to what I believe is an incomplete understanding of the gospel, members of the Church, when confronted with information that is inconsistent with our beliefs (e.g., Joseph Smith was sealed to women who were already married, blacks were denied the priesthood until 1978, women can’t be ordained to priesthood offices, etc) feel a discomfort, or a dissonance of sorts. I have at times felt that dissonance when confronted by something that I didn’t understand, or something that was inconsistent with my imperfect understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Wikipedia article suggests that when there is discomfort and dissonance, there are a few things that we may choose to do to reduce that dissonance:

1) change our beliefs
2) misperceive, reject, or refute the information
3) seek support from others who share beliefs
4) attempt to persuade others

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-15; emphasis added)

Ironically, the solution I have found to the problem of discomfort when something is inconsistent with my “beliefs” is to change my beliefs. That may sound as if I am being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, but I was not born knowing everything. I was not born with (nor do I yet possess) a perfect knowledge of the gospel. My faith, my beliefs, have “not grown up to a perfect knowledge.” It is my goal to feed my faith, and to find the seeds that swell, sprout, and grow – the good seeds. And only after I have found out that it is a good seed will my knowledge be perfect “in that thing” and my faith will be dormant (in that thing). But will my knowledge of all things be perfect? No, I am still growing and learning, by the help of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers who are helping to perfect me until I come in the unity of the faith. It’s a process.

A more accurate description of this process, rather than describing it as changing my beliefs is changing my understanding of my beliefs. I claim the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and more specifically, I claim the beliefs of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sometimes my understanding of those beliefs is not perfect, and that’s why I need to experience cognitive dissonance – to help me gain a more perfect understanding.

The Wikipedia article about cognitive dissonance references Jean Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory with this statement:

the inevitable conflicts a child experiences between current beliefs and new information will lead to disequilibrium, which in turn motivates the child’s progress through the various stages of development. (Wikipedia)

As we are all children in the gospel of Jesus Christ, I believe that this dissonance between our understanding of our belief system and what is reality plays a similar role.

To rephrase the reference to Piaget’s theory,

the inevitable conflicts a person experiences between their current understanding of the gospel and new information will lead to disequilibrium, which in turn motivates that person’s progress through the various stages of spiritual development.

Cognitive dissonance can motivate us to progress spiritually, to deepen our understanding of gospel doctrines and principles, and to help us grow as children in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Retreat from the World or Retreat into the World

I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. (John 17:15-16)

But what happens if a person, confronted with disequilibrium and resulting cognitive dissonance does not choose spiritual growth and progress? The three additional choices are:

2) misperceive, reject, or refute the information
3) seek support from others who share beliefs
4) attempt to persuade others

Rejection of the information (option #2) happens frequently in the Church culture. This is the scenario where people say “Oh, there’s no way Joseph Smith had all those wives.” “The Church would never do ___.” “Joseph Smith never married women who were already married, that’s just a story some anti-Mormon made up to discredit him.” These are examples of rejecting, misperceiving, or refuting information that sounds inconsistent with one’s beliefs. As we come across statements that present new, seemingly contradictory, information we sometimes have a tendency to become defensive. While historical “facts” are often selective, equivocal, and nested in a place and time, even those that are most uncomfortable can lead us to spiritual growth, while running from them or attacking them as fiction leaves us without a richer understanding of history and conditions.

Seeking support from others who share your imperfect beliefs (option #3) is just as common in the Church culture. This is where members who don’t believe that unsavory things ever happened in the Church stick together and stay away from all the “heretics” who accept that there are unsavory aspects about every person and every organization. (Let me add here that unsavory – or rather, imperfect and often surprising – aspects of our character make us human, not evil). These are the people who think everyone who asks questions is a dissenter and apostate – even those who ask questions faithfully.

Attempting to persuade others (option #4) is an attack mode of option #3. Rather than just avoiding the “heretics”, these members of the Church openly criticize those who are trying to change their beliefs, or gain a better understanding (option #1). Members who are using option #4 will claim those using option #1 are headed down a “slippery slope”. There are those who will, in using option #1, rather than coming to a better understanding of their beliefs, abandon their misunderstood beliefs altogether, in effect becoming apostate. However, not all members who ask questions in the face of cognitive dissonance are in danger of apostasy. Especially when they ask questions with real intent.

I frequently question my understanding of a belief. For example, the doctrine of gender identity is a doctrine I have struggled with immensely – and causes some cognitive dissonance. I ask lots of questions when faced with cognitive dissonance, and what I frequently find is that as I ask questions and seek answers, with real intent, my understanding may be proven false, but the truth, or the doctrine, stands firm. It is a kind of refiner’s fire, where my imperfect, human perspective and understanding is burned off through these hard questions until only the pure doctrine remains.

Hard Things

There are many potentially uncomfortable aspects of Church history that may cause us to doubt the truthfulness of the organization of the Church. Living a chaste lifestyle, refraining from drugs and alcohol, the laws of sacrifice and consecration may seem to be counterintuitive to all that seems to make a person “happy” in this world. The article I referenced at the beginning of this post may seem to contradict what the prophets have taught us – that families are important and that families bring us joy. Cognitive dissonance seems to swarm around the Church’s teachings.

The truth of the matter is the things that bring us the greatest joy are often the hardest things to do. Ask anyone who has run a marathon, or climbed Mt. Everest, or walked again after a stroke. They won’t beat around the bush and say, “Oh yeah, those 26.2 miles, they were awesome!” or “My favorite part was the last mile to the peak. It was cake! I practically sailed up that mountain!” or “My legs felt light as feathers! I just stood up and I could walk!” More likely you will hear, “When I crossed that finish line I felt like I had done something really amazing!” or “The view from the peak was breathtaking. Totally worth the climb!” or “Running in the yard with my grandkids again made me feel like a million bucks!”

When presented with the less pleasant, physically and emotionally draining, costly tasks associated with being parents; when the world calls from every side with images of wealth and the fun to be had; when doctors tell us this thing is good in moderation, or that thing is good in moderation; these arguments may seem inconsistent with our belief that living the principles of the gospel is what will really bring us joy.

The answer isn’t to refute the claims that living the gospel is hard (it is), or hang out more with other people who think living the gospel is a cake walk (it isn’t), or attempt to convince other people that living the gospel really is fun every minute (it definitely isn’t) – rather, we deepen our understanding of what joy really means.

And every time we experience cognitive dissonance, we are granted an opportunity to progress spiritually, increase our testimony, and deepen our understanding, eventually coming to a more perfect understanding of the gospel.

  • How has cognitive dissonance played a role in the formation (or destruction) of your testimony? 
  • How do you respond to cognitive dissonance? 
  • Have you allowed instances of cognitive dissonance to help you deepen your understanding of gospel principles?

About Becca

Becca is just a woman, mother, daughter of God, trying to figure things out. She blogs at My Soul Delighteth and Real Intent.

6 Responses to Cognitive Dissonance For a More Perfect Understanding

  1. Jon Hickman says:

    Becca, just wanted to say that I really appreciated your insight. Please keep writing.

    JH

  2. Paul says:

    I think one reason we feel dissonance upon learning new things is because of present understanding is incomplete. You say as much, too.

    It’s a problem because we may inately believe that we know what we know, and because we have a testimony of what we know, therefore what we know is right.

    As I “grew up” in a gospel sense during my college years, I came to realize that a lot of what I “knew” was not what I had a testimony of. That early testimony was, as it happens, very, very simple: God lives; I’m his child; he restored his gospel to the earth. The details (as it turned out) I often got wrong, or didn’t matter as much as those big themes.

    As I’ve matured spiritually, I’ve been able to accept new facts along the way and file them in around things I know better about what I know. Sometimes those new facts cause me to realize I know less than I think I do (as I did when I was younger). And sometimes the new facts are just wrong, and I may need to wait for more information (that ol’ put-it-on-a-shelf technique).

    Now that I’m past the half-century mark in age, my doubts sneak in differently than before, often wrapped in “wasn’t it supposed to turn out differently?” packaging. And now I learn (again) about things I thought I knew that I didn’t know, like how to ensure my children will do one thing or another. The truth that I’ve learned is that my Father in Heaven didn’t even have that guarantee; who am I to expect it?

    Great essay. Great thoughts. I’m glad I’m still learning.

    • “The details (as it turned out) I often got wrong, or didn’t matter as much as those big themes.”

      I love that. Definitely something I am learning. Whenever I get hung up on the details, I try to remember that nothing matters as much as those big themes. It really helps me find peace.

      Since I was in high school I always felt that the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew before, and how much more I have to learn.

      I have a distinct memory of commenting to my sister “Isn’t a great thing that we have eternity to learn everything – there is no way we will ever be able to learn everything in this life!” And I only become more convinced of that truth as I live my life.

  3. Kathryn Skaggs says:

    Becca,

    This is an excellent post. Very well written. My own experiences of cognitive dissonance have caused me to stretch toward a deeper faith in those things that I do know to be true — until, alas, I gain more understanding/insight into that which I found temporarily disruptive.

    And to the whole parenting thing… I was just having the conversation with my grown children about how difficult it was to raise them. They noted how happy dad and I are these days. I had to laugh and confess that, yes, indeed we are. We definitely were in a brief survival mode during their teen years, and yet today, years later — our joy is quite full.

    That dissonance that, I believe, God intends throughout our lives, is the channel through which our greatest joy ultimately manifests itself. It must be passed through, faithfully, in order to be understood and bring us to the place that we begin to understand God.

  4. Christy says:

    Great post. I have a tendency to “reject and/or refute” when I come across conflicting issues. This week, though, I decided to start studying out some of these conflicting issues for myself. While I come across some historical evidence that I honestly don’t care to research, those issues that affect me in the present day I’m realizing are very important for me to study out and gain a knowledge and testimony of for myself.

    I agree that none of us have a perfect understanding of the gospel, but through study and prayer we can sharpen our understanding.

    What a great community you guys have created here to be able to talk, share, and learn from each other!

  5. Emily says:

    Becca, I keep meaning to tell you that I thought this was an excellent post. Such good explanation and examples.

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