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How You Can Use Cognitive Dissonance to Change Your Life

Beth Bradford

November 7, 2022 at 10:54:18 AM

You may have heard of the theory of cognitive dissonance, but you may not know how to use it to change your life.

I read a recent article in America Magazine about a nun being overcritical of Thomas Merton being a contemplative. She said, "I've never met a real contemplative who found Merton useful."

She gave examples of the many inconsistencies of Merton's thoughts and behaviors based on his diaries. Of course, if your diary makes sense, it's not a diary. She talked about his complexity, as if he was perfect and not human.

The whole time, I couldn't help but think, "It's cognitive dissonance." Even during the letters, you can see how she, too, was conflicted about Thomas Merton. Eventually she would have to resolve this dissonance within herself.

What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

Leon Festinger developed the theory of cognitive dissonance in 1957. Cognitive dissonance is the psychological term for the discomfort that we feel when our beliefs and actions are incompatible. When we experience cognitive dissonance, we will usually try to reduce it by adjusting our beliefs or actions. For example, if we believe that smoking is bad for our health, but we continue to smoke, then we will experience cognitive dissonance. 

In current politics, we might idolize a political figure and say we’re a devout Christian. When we see this political figure violate our Christian beliefs, we experience dissonance. We have a choice–we can change how we feel about this political figure, modify our Christian beliefs to condone the political figure’s behavior, or we can ignore what we hear about this behavior and find more information to confirm what we believe. Confirmation bias is related to cognitive dissonance in this regard.

We can use cognitive dissonance to our advantage by creating a plan of action that is as close as possible to our desired outcome. For example, if we want to quit smoking, we might set a goal of quitting for one week. This will help us to reduce the cognitive dissonance that we feel and make it easier for us to quit smoking permanently.

How to Use Cognitive Dissonance to Change Your Life

When you experience cognitive dissonance, you feel uncomfortable and stressed. This is your brain's way of telling you that you need to do something to eliminate the dissonance.

The good news is that you can use this stress to your advantage. When you're feeling uncomfortable, it means that you're growing and changing. You're challenging your old beliefs and making progress towards your goals.

So don't be afraid of cognitive dissonance – embrace it! It's a sign that you're on the right track.

The Drawbacks of Cognitive Dissonance

Despite its benefits, cognitive dissonance also has some drawbacks. For one, it can be very uncomfortable. When our beliefs are challenged, we can feel a lot of dissonance, which can be unpleasant.

Another downside is that cognitive dissonance can lead to us making bad decisions. We may stubbornly cling to our beliefs even when the evidence suggests that we're wrong, just to avoid experiencing the discomfort of dissonance. This keeps us stuck in old patterns and beliefs and closes you off to meaningful change.

But with a little bit of self-awareness, you can use cognitive dissonance to your advantage and make positive changes in your life.


Cognitive dissonance is a powerful tool that can be used to change your life for the better. When you experience dissonance, it means that there's inconsistency between your thoughts, your beliefs, and your actions. This can be a painful experience, but it's also an opportunity to learn and grow.

I would hope that when reading about other people’s inconsistencies, it would motivate you to question your beliefs not only about that person, but also within yourself. If you're willing to face the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, you can use it to change your beliefs and your actions. This will help you to live a more consistent and fulfilling life.

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