By Mark E. Smith
Cognitive dissonance. Have you ever heard of it? Probably not, as it’s pretty much confined to psychology jargon. Yet, it impacts each of us in countless ways, and in understanding how it functions in our everyday lives, it can save us hassle and heartache in avoiding those who engage in it.
In simple terms, cognitive dissonance is when our beliefs are not reflected by our actions. For example, most smokers know that smoking will eventually harm them; yet, they still smoke. You might say, cognitive dissonance is the inexplicable logic of doing something contrary to one’s beliefs: Smoking is bad for me, but I smoke.
Fortunately, not everyone engages in cognitive dissonance. People on diets skip bad food for healthier choices – and, therefore, their beliefs and actions are in harmony, not dissonance. In fact, it’s said that, as evolved humans, we naturally seek cognitive consistency, where our beliefs and actions align, and if they don’t, mechanisms like guilt, shame, and remorse come in to get us back on track. That is, doing what’s right is more instinctive than doing what’s wrong or negating our values.
Of course, cognitive consistency – where our actions reflect our beliefs – is vital to living an integrity-based life, where we honor those around us by doing what we say. However, beyond our own behavior, we need to do a much better job in surrounding ourselves with people of cognitive consistency rather than cognitive dissonance. We need to assess those around us based more on actions than words.
See, rule number one with cognitive dissonance is that there’s danger in trusting people who say one thing but do another. People who claim to love you do not hurt you (raise your hand if you’ve ever been in such a relationship or have known someone in such a relationship). Therefore, if you’re witnessing someone whose words don’t align with his or her actions, don’t let it slide – there’s danger in dealing with such a person.
Rule number two is to look for actions that reinforce words before placing too much emphasis on an individual’s character. People engaging in cognitive dissonance will promise you the world, with no ability or intention to live up to those promises. My friends who participate in online dating share the universal experience of connecting with amazing people who come across via messaging and texts as “the one,” but then disappear when it’s time for an in-person date. Why does this happen?
The answer is, it’s an online form of cognitive dissonance. Anyone can say anything online, with no actions to back it up. When we encounter someone in the real world, we intrinsically know at least something about him or her, so it’s much tougher to get fooled (or “catfished,” as they say online), as opposed to only speaking to someone through the web. If a thoracic surgeon chats you up online, but consistently finds reasons not to meet for coffee – so many emergency hospital calls! – what are the odds that the person is telling the truth, as you see no actions to substantiate the words? However, if the cute teller at your bank asks you on a date, you already know he or she is truly a bank teller, where you’re witnessing actions, so there’s at least some known authenticity.
In the corporate world, a real problem is “professional interviewees.” These are individuals who have a golden tongue toward selling themselves, but never professionally execute all of the talents they boast. The fact is, in high-performance positions, it can take six months to one year to see real results or failings – and that’s right around the time too-good-to-be-true employees jump ship to the next unsuspecting company (read that, when their cognitive dissonance is shown). To address this, astute companies look for performance-proven queues in resumes, as well as hold performance-based interviews, where claims are reasonably able to be substantiated.
There’s likewise a lot to be said surrounding cognitive dissonance and the words I love you in our culture. People are quick to say those words – easy utterances of sound – but are not so consistent in putting actions behind them. We can say those words to our spouses and children all day long, but if we’re not actively engaged in their lives in loving ways, do those words truly have meaning? I say I love you to my wife and daughters a lot, but it’s my demonstrations of love toward them that creates meaning to the words. Saying I love you doesn’t create love; engaging in loving does.
The examples could continue, and I’m sure you have your own that you’ve experienced and learned from. Yet, here’s what it all comes down to: Actions are an absolute, while words can waiver.
To truly know someone, let us not merely listen to words, but authenticate one’s character via observing one’s actions. We all find ourselves in vulnerable spots, where words can say exactly what we want to hear. However, if the words aren’t substantiated with actions – especially when the dissonance causes us harm of any kind – it’s time to break ties with such people in our lives. We deserve the reciprocation of accountable actions, not hollow words.
At the same time, we owe it to all around us to be as harmonious as possible with our own behavior, where we honor others with actions that live up to our words. So often our own behavior sets the tone of others’, and we must be authentic if we wish others to be authentic. It’s easy to point at someone and say, He’s exhibiting cognitive dissonance! Yet, let us also honestly look inward to ensure that we have cognitive consistency in our own behavior, as that’s ultimately where it all begins.
It’s cliché and true: Actions speak louder than words. As Stephen Covey puts it, “What you do has far greater impact than what you say.”