On a recent flight, I was sitting next to two very chatty gentlemen. I had no intention of eavesdropping on their conversation. However, I had no choice but to hear them talk, as they were sitting right next to me and yapping nonstop. Both of them were chain smokers. They reeked of cigarette smoke and were waxing eloquent about how much they loved to smoke. Both the gentlemen hated flying because they couldn’t indulge in their favorite pastime… smoking. They were musing about how pleasant it is to travel on trains as they can smoke whenever and wherever they want. I guess that they do not know smoking in public places is illegal in India.
They both agreed that smoking is injurious to their health, but they enjoyed it because it relaxes them when under stress. I was wondering whether they realized that they were both reducing the magnitude of their cognitive dissonance by justifying their behavior. Just when I thought that their discussion couldn’t get any sillier, one of them went ahead and lowered the bar even further.
The discussion at that time centered around how much each of them spend on cigarettes, every month. The first chatterbox quoted an amount, quite a large amount I should say, he spent every month on pursuing his favorite pastime. The second chatterbox than gave a wry smile, cast an askance glance at his flight partner and said that he has found a very creative way to save close to 10% on his monthly smoking expenditure. He has done so by buying cigarettes wholesale instead of retail. Nowadays, he buys cigarettes by the cartons from a wholesaler, and in the process buys them at a reduced price. He seemed to be quite proud at killing himself, by smoking cigarettes at a discount.
As I deplaned, I watched the two gentlemen closely without appearing like a creep. Although they stank of cigarette smoke, they were well dressed and seemed to have refined taste. They appeared well-educated, and were probably executives in a multinational firm. I couldn’t help but wonder, whether the chatterbox who was saving money by buying cigarettes wholesale realized that consuming poison at a discount is still consuming poison. They went their own way, and I went mine. This incident, however, had me thinking. How many of us in our personal and professional lives exhibit risky behaviors, but find ways to justify the action. How many of us try to reduce the magnitude of our cognitive dissonance by making changes to justify the contradictory ideas, beliefs or values.
In my walk through the park of life, I have observed and noticed quite a few instances of cognitive dissonance being experienced by people around me. I have also been guilty of experiencing a few myself, but I have had the presence of mind to realize the dissonance and course correct.
Here are a few examples of cognitive dissonance that I have read about, heard of and experienced myself.
- A business leader preaching to the employees that we all need to adhere to the company standards, rules and policies, and then violating everything himself. A CTO talking about rules and IT policies, and reminding all employees that they should follow the company’s Internet policy to the letter. Next, during a town hall, he jokes about how he used his influence to make the Network Administrators allow him to live stream World Cup Final at work. He justifies his action by saying that he can do so because he is the CTO and enjoys such perks.
- Men preaching monogamy, loyalty and sanctity of marriage, while cheating on their wife. Justifying their actions by saying, “I love my wife, but only if I got more sex at home, then I wouldn’t cheat on her. But I still love her and will always return to her.”
- Saying that you value people and relationship very much. Winning over the person of your dreams and then destroying the relationship by taking that person for granted. Then, justifying one’s actions by saying, “Big deal that you stood with me through thick and thin. That’s was people do and are supposed to do. I can’t say thank you for every single thing. Grow up! You are being immature!”
- Knowing that lying and cheating at work are wrong, yet justifying their actions by saying “Sometimes you gotta do this to get ahead in your career. I want to get to the top at any cost, don’t care about the collateral damage.”
- Gambling instead of investing. Speculating big in the stock market and justifying their actions by saying, “You can’t hit it out of the park, unless you take a big risk. No risk no gain.”
- Teenagers and even adults indulging in dangerous driving, drugs and unprotected sexual activities and justifying their action as thrill-seeking or living life to the fullest. Their excuse? “No one gets out of this place alive.”
- People agree that politicians lie with impunity and are scums of the universe, yet people look up to these faux leaders as saviors and fall for their lies every time. The justification is “This person is different. He has our best interest in mind.”
- Staying in an abusive relationship, even though they know that it’s causing them harm. Loving someone who doesn’t love them or does bad things to them and others. Justifying the action by saying “He is not a bad person, actually. He can be nice at times. It must be also my fault that he finds reasons to hurt me.”
- Preaching that all religious books talk about universal brotherhood and love, while practicing hate and meanness.
- Realizing that organized religion is a huge scam, yet following the false prophets practicing and proselytizing such religions.
- Pro-lifers killing medical practitioners they suspect of performing abortions.
- People believing in lies their entire lives, yet choosing to deny the truth once presented to them. Flat-Earthers, anyone?
- Procrastination. I am backlogged and need to finish my work as the deadline is fast approaching; however, I am also wasting time on social media. I justify this action by saying that this is helping me relax and get more work done. But it isn’t.
- Wax eloquent about climate change but drive a gas guzzler and have a huge carbon footprint.
- I have seen people disciplining their children for bad behavior, while they indulge in morally reprehensible acts, themselves.
- Waxing eloquent about how people should be allowed to die with dignity and not made to suffer by keeping them alive “artificially.” Then keeping a terminally ill family member alive on life support and making that person suffer for weeks or months. Justifying the cognitive dissonance by exclaiming that miracles do happen and the person will die only when God wants him/her to.
We all experience cognitive dissonance from time to time. It forces us to justify actions that contradicts our beliefs. Case in point the two smokers justifying their need to smoke, although they know that their action is injurious to health. Such actions may eventually catch up with us, and we then have a come to Jesus moment. Then, most often than not it is too late for any corrective action. In this particular instance, one day, the person who is currently saving almost 10% on his monthly smoking expenditure may wake up to find that he has a medical condition, terminal maybe. The 10% he is saving presently may end up costing him millions of rupees in healthcare expenditure. But, at least for now, he is enjoying his smokes and relieving stress.
Be careful of justifying the cognitive dissonance you’re experiencing. You can end up digging a bigger hole for yourself. And, as you know, the first rule of being in a hole is to stop digging. And the second rule is to not forget the first rule.