Cognitive Dissonance Redeux

Cognitive Dissonance
Ever felt that things were not quite right?  Have you held a strong belief but known deep down that something was wrong when you learnt that this belief was unfounded but struggle to let go of the original belief?  This feeling is called Cognitive Dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance Defined

“Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The “ideas” or “cognitions” in question may include attitudes and beliefs, the awareness of one’s behaviour, and facts. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours, or by justifying or rationalising their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours.”


Back in September 2009, I first wrote a post about this subject and I was confused.  It around this time in my journey that I felt a little burnt out from all the environmental and sustainable living activities I had been undertaking and were still continuing to volunteer for.  I had been doing all of this work in the community, with little outcome to visibly show for it and was beginning to feel that I was the only person, besides a few friends that I knew, that actually cared about any of the big issues that were facing us.  
I was totally wrong of course, because when I attended the yearly Walk Against Warming in my city three months later, over 40,000 like-minded people joined in to show support.  My spirits were also buoyed by the overwhelming and global uproar that the Copenhagen COP15 conference caused, even though the outcome was not the best for the planet.
Looking back, this term aptly described my state of mind about other people’s actions that I saw everyday when I was at a low, and how I felt just before my own green epiphany.

Two Beliefs in Conflict

So the two contradictory ideas that I held simultaneously in my head, which caused me an uncomfortable feeling were;
A.  That we are on the cusp of a global emergency, with a changing climate, resource depletion, overpopulation, and the end of cheap oil, and obversely, 

B.  Everywhere I look around me, everyone was going on about their business as if there was nothing wrong and everything is smelling like roses.  Even the global recession was said to be over which so many pundits spruiked.  I didn’t believe for a second and history shows that I was correct in this belief.

Cognitive Dissonance

Was it just me with this battle going on in my brain?  I believed one thing, and saw another that contradicted it.  Some days I felt like my head was going to explode, because everything I believed to be true about these issues constantly manifested themselves in events I could see around me and read about everyday.

Since then, a lot of time has passed, so I don’t think this way much any more, well not as often as I did.  I have come to realise that cognitive dissonance is the first stage of awareness about an issue, and although it is very confusing for a while, you suddenly realise that these massive issues are not all full of doom and gloom, but are filled with hope and opportunity.


I now except that everyone are at different stages of understanding, and that those of us who have a better understanding of these issues better can assist others in seeing the bigger picture. Some won’t accept what you are telling them, but the majority will take it as food for thought and research further.

Thinking of the worst case scenario only paralyses people (and yourself) with fear, and you fail to act.  By describing a message of hope and a better life without loss of lifestyle, it is an easier way to engage others and keep them interested in the simple changes you have made yourself.  It took me a while to figure this out, but hey, I have always been one to learn from my mistakes (eventually).

Influencing Others

I have found that when I talk about my lifestyle at work in a positive way, I get far more interest than if I had started telling people about the big issues that face us.

It is in this manner that I have influenced the most people without them even realising it.  They are motivated and happy as they change to a simpler way of living.  Gardening always seems to be the easiest subject to talk about, and then I supplement the conversation with how I prepared the harvest, what I cooked, and how I preserved the surplus.  
It brings a smile to my face when my work colleagues tell me how their veggie patch is thriving and growing, and then they ask for more tips to save money and simple changes they can make.  It is great fun to share experiences other than just those at work, and bringing in home-made cheese to sample always helps stir up interest!


Actions Help, and Seek Like Minds

So, take hope if you are feeling cognitive dissonance right now, because it will pass as you learn more.  I suggest that you don’t ignore it, but act upon it.

Seek out others who can help you understand the issues in a realistic way, and can explain to you why simple living has so many other benefits other than saving you money.  
Cognitive Dissonance
The simple fact that this blog is visited by thousands of people each day gives me the biggest boost of hope.  I sleep well in the knowledge that it is providing a valuable service to the global community.  Simple, positive actions break down cognitive dissonance quickly and when you know that you are heading in the right direction, this feeling disappears and fades away. 

Have you ever had environmental cognitive dissonance, and how did you react to the opposing thoughts or ideas?  I would love to hear your experiences via a comment.



  1. says

    Cognitive dissonance prevailed the whole time I was an omnivore. It took reading Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” to realise that I was wrong. I realised this when I tried and tried to fight back at Singer’s arguments, but couldn’t on rational terms. What was I to do – continue to consume animal products and contribute to the suffering of billions of animals, and dismiss Singer’s points? Or do something positive about it? I went vegetarian immediately and vegan not long after.

    As an activist I come up against cognitive dissonance-backed objections every day. I don’t think anybody will disagree that treating animals badly is wrong, and to a lesser extent, that using animals to satisfy our arbitrary ends is wrong. But it’s difficult getting people to take the argument seriously and do something about it.

    People, such as Gavin, have made great changes to his consumption habits. This includes food. This has been rationalised on environmental grounds. However, it seems that tastebuds always get in the way. Why is it that tastebuds are considered some sort of appreciate moral determinant anyway?

  2. says

    I’m not sure if this is an example of CD or something else, but I occasionally get this really weird disconnect when someone asks me something like “why would you bother trying knit socks when you can just buy them?”, or “I would rather just buy my chicken from the supermarket so someone else has to kill and butcher them”. These comments are so far removed from my current way of thinking and doing that they often leave me speechless, I can’t even begin to explain these concepts to someone who is questioning the underlying ideals of self-sufficiency!

  3. Kathy P. says

    Here in the US, there is no better example of cognitive dissonance than the ongoing bread-and-circuses spectacle of the US Presidential “race”. Neither candidate or party has uttered a syllable in this campaign that suggests they have any concern over the real issues that confront us. It’s all just the usual partisan rhetoric, making promises to the voters that they can’t keep because they are so beholden to the special interests that are pouring billions into this campaign.

    What frightens me is that so many are still believing, fervently, that one party or the other will be our salvation. I had to laugh when one candidate claimed that he’ll make all of North America energy independent by 2020. (Not just the US, mind you. All of North America. Has he discussed this with the Canadians?) Another guy promised that if he was nominated (he wasn’t) and elected he’d lower the price of gas to $1.50/gallon. It’s all buffoonery, smoke and mirrors, a con game.

    And the band played on…right?

  4. says

    Hi Gavin and family,
    This post was excellent! This is the issue that I am dealing with right now with my family. I have three adult children, and two of them are carring on as if there are no issues and it scares me. The other one is full into solar power, biking everywhere and learning to forage and grow for himself. Perhaps I need to take your advise and come at this from a different angle. They obviously think mum has gone off her rocker :-)
    Thanks again, Gav, for your words of wisdom!

Comments build lively communities. Let me know your thoughts, but keep it clean and green! Spam is removed instantly.