As the title suggests, this article is the much-awaited (or much feared, depending on how uncomfortable you are) part two of our series on Cognitive Dissonance. Cognitive Dissonance, as you may remember (click here if you need a refresher), refers to the anxiety or discomfort a person feels when their actions are incongruent with their core beliefs.
If you want to know how it feels, think of the core belief that shaped your outlook on life. Now imagine doing something completely against that belief. Feeling something heavy and uneasy in your chest and throat? That feeling is the result of Cognitive Dissonance.
Now ask yourself - if you felt this way outside of this little exercise, what would you do to make yourself feel better? This is your cue to return to your sheet of paper or phone (No getting distracted and scrolling on Facebook or Instagram - the cute cat videos will still be there, I promise) and read your answers. Take a walk back to memory lane and try to remember- What did you do to cope? And did it work?
James, as my dedicated readers will recall, took to meditation, peppermint tea (ethically sourced only, please) and walks. You may also recall that none of this worked. Why?
Let’s return to the bakery, where Mary is casually considering going on a vegan diet for a short period of time, simply because she doesn’t particularly enjoy a lot of meat or animal products. It is Mary’s father Alex’s birthday and Alex is, to put it mildly, a voracious carnivore (God forbid James should see Alex’s eating habits). For his surprise birthday party, Mary put her vegan diet on pause and enjoyed a well-done filet mignon with a flavorful mushroom sauce and crispy sauteed potatoes (What’s that rumbling noise? Must be the wind. Definitely not my tummy.)
Ask yourself, do you think Mary would feel guilty about eating meat?
No. She wouldn’t. But James would not simply feel guilty - he could very well have a nervous breakdown.
Why is this? After all, it’s the same diet - it is the same values being violated.
The answer is pretty straightforward. Mary is not as attached to veganism as James. She has not built a personality around Veganism, nor does she particularly care about the ethical concerns. She has no moral attachment to the diet. Simply put, it does not hold any deep meaning for her.
James, on the other hand, relies entirely on his core belief of veganism to direct his outlook on life. His opinions, views and lifestyle are vegan. His sense of being a good person, or a not-so-good person, is also vegan. He is, in the fullest sense of the word, a vegan.
For Mary, eating cheese is just another Tuesday. For James, it is violence and abuse.
The degree of discomfort relies on the importance that the person assigns the belief. The more important the belief is, the more uncomfortable the person will feel.
This is why the walks, meditation and peppermint tea (ethically sourced, may I remind you) did not help. James’ belief is intense, so his cognitive dissonance demands that his response to the unease should also be meaningful to the conflict. So keeping that in mind, what are some of the ways he can respond? What are some of the ways you can respond to your own instances of cognitive dissonance?
1. James can rationalise and justify it:
It’s not James’ fault because he needs money. Yes, the rabbits are cute but student loans are not. It is a matter of survival, he can tell himself. He will return to being a firm vegan once his fees are paid. Just this one time. It’s okay because he’s donating and working for vegan causes, so it balances out.
2. James can minimise the importance of the behaviour:
Well, it’s not like this is the only Bakery in the country that uses animal products. It’s just one in hundreds - its contribution can very well be so small that it is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. And James himself isn’t consuming it, so he doesn’t need to feel bad about it.
3. James can attempt to change his behaviour:
In his case, working for the non-vegan Bakery is the action that violates his morality. The most effective way, and the most complicated way, of addressing it would be to quit his job and search for a workplace that values vegan ideals.
4. James can attempt to change the source of the conflict:
He loves his job, colleagues and benefits - what he does not like is the non-veganism. He can simply tell himself that he is continuing his job to make Philip consider the possibility of switching to vegan-friendly ingredients. This can make him feel like his action is aligned with his morals, not against it.
Return to your sheet of paper or phone (The cat videos are still there, relax. We’re almost done) and think about the way you coped with your cognitive dissonance. Which option did you choose?
After pondering, James decides to choose option 4 and talk to Philip. He wants to teach Philip about the animal rights abuses that occur in the poultry, meat and dairy industries. He goes to work the next day, feeling a lot better about himself.
Philip patiently listens to James’ concerns. He quietly but firmly points out that the Bakery caters to a wide range of customers - vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian and meat-eaters. He reminds James that going entirely vegan is not an option. James points out that all the ingredients Jane uses, like eggs, milk, butter and cream, have easily accessible vegan alternatives. They would not detract from the flavour and do not contribute to animal abuse.
Philip patiently reminds him that most dairy alternatives are nut-based. So if cow’s milk was swapped out, he could only use almond milk, coconut milk or cashew milk. The Bakery also serves customers who are allergic to nuts and cannot, under any circumstances, consume nut products or nut butters. Similarly, when Philip receives orders from lactose-intolerant customers, he needs to use these nut-based alternatives because dairy is not an option.
Philip kindly reminds James that while he appreciates the input, going completely vegan would alienate a large portion of his customers. He conceded that he could compromise on the brand of the dairy products used, since it is so notorious for animal abuse, and switch to a different one.
James reflects on what Philip said and realises for the first time that veganism may not be practical for everyone. This reflection calms him down, and he resolves to focus on areas where he can improve conditions instead of feeling guilty about dead ends.
This is how James coped with his Cognitive Dissonance.
Reflect on your own experiences. How did you cope? Was the strategy effective? If you could go back, would you cope differently? Answering these questions can give you valuable insight about yourself that you may not have had before. Remember, cognitive dissonance is common - there is no need to avoid it. It can be more useful to cope and reflect on your feelings, because your discomfort can hold the secret to your growth.