Dissonance: a deep feeling of tension, disquiet or discomfort if we find ourselves conflicted. It’s most common if there’s a significant gap between what we tell ourselves we believe and what we actually do; or if we feel caught between competing alternatives; or if we have invested significant effort, time and resources into something that now feels wasted.
Here are some examples to illustrate this phenomenon: ‘My boss insists I work long hours if I want to keep my job, yet I believe spending time with my family is most important’; ‘I can see the relative pros and cons of two different job offers, yet I can’t decide which to choose’; ‘I’ve spent the last 5 years working very hard in my job, yet it hasn’t done anything to advance my career.’
If the dissonance feels strong enough, we will usually try to find ways to reduce, resolve or reconcile ourselves to it. We may do this, in the first example, by trying to change something in the situation itself, e.g. by seeking to negotiate a different number or pattern of hours or, if this isn’t possible, by justifying it, e.g. by reassuring ourselves that the long hours of work will benefit the family.
In the second example, we may try to reach a decision by shifting the balance, e.g. by seeking to emphasise, to ourselves, the attractive qualities of one alternative and minimise its downsides or, correspondingly, to focus on the costs of the other option and underplay its benefits. It’s a subconscious mental manoeuvre that aims to tip the scales and break the deadlock.
In the third example, which concerns a past decision and actions that cannot now be changed, we may find ways to post-rationalise it, e.g. by seeking to redefine the outcome as having in some way benefitted our career after all, or by reframing the experience and focusing on other benefits that, although not directly career-advancing, nevertheless make the investment feel worthwhile.
These types of psychological strategies can bring positive mental health benefits such as peace of mind, especially in situations that feel stressful and unresolvable. At the same time, they run risks of avoidance of personal responsibility; diminished sense of agency; defensive behaviour; or failure to pursue more radical options that could create a better, more life-giving and sustainable future.
When have you seen or experienced dissonance, and how do you address it?
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