By Jenniffer Mann
Cognitive dissonance is described as “a feeling of mental discomfort, caused when what we believe is consistently challenged by contrasting behaviour. For example, if we persist in smoking (behaviour) and know smoking causes cancer (cognition), we are in a state of cognitive dissonance.”
As a Christian, it would remiss of me not to recognise the times in my life, where I have this conflict of what I believe and my behaviour. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that most of us, Christian or otherwise face this dilemma. In order to deal with the divergence between belief and behaviour we find ways to try and diminish the effects of the discomfort this creates. However, we don’t always recognise that trying to justify our behaviour, feeling ashamed, uncomfortable, embarrassed or guilty maybe dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance can arise through different circumstances, let’s take a brief look /at some of the ways this happens:
A good example of this is peer pressure, where we find ourselves behaving in a way that is in direct opposition to our beliefs. Let’s say, you’re in a group and find yourself smoking marijuana when you’ve always been opposed to taking drugs. Or engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage, when you don’t believe you should.
Sometimes learning new information can lead to feelings of cognitive dissonance. For example, eating a particular type of food as a vegetarian, that you really enjoy, only to later discover it contains animal products.
We frequently find ourselves in the position of needing to make decisions but sometimes this can cause conflict. For example, do I accept the job offer that comes with more money or the one that brings more satisfaction? We will then justify our choice by rationalising it being the best decision.
The defining marker of cognitive dissonance is that it causes internal conflict. One of the coping mechanisms engaged to deal with this is confirmation bias. This is where we selectively choose information to support our behaviour. So, for example, telling ourselves that sex outside of marriage is okay because we plan to marry the person anyway.
The degree of dissonance people experience can depend on a few different factors, including how highly they value a particular belief and the degree to which their beliefs are inconsistent. As a Christian, my belief system is firmly rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ. My life is guided by these principles and my faith is a direct result of my beliefs. What psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance, the Bible teaches as being “Double minded” in James 1:8 we read: “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.” I recently read ‘The Greek word translated “double-minded” is dipsuchos, which in its literal sense means “double-souled,” like having two independent wills’. These wills are in direct opposition of each other causing us to be in a constant state of flux. James continued his thoughts on this in James 4:8 where we read: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts you double-minded.”
This is not the same as being single minded in our focus and struggling with inherently human behaviour, this specifically speaks to having no real conviction and therefore being easily influenced at every turn causing spiritual dissonance. We’ve all seen those cop shows on the TV where the police officer pulls over a car and asks the person to step out. We get a good picture of how drunk the driver is when they’re asked to walk in a straight line and are barely able to put one foot in front of the other.
When we are double-minded, we cannot walk through life on a straight road and are unstable and restless living with a constant state of inner conflict. In Matthew 7:13 we read:
“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.”
There are only two options presented here. If we are on the straight and narrow path, we will not find ourselves in a constant state of spiritual dissonance. Swaying between opinions in conflict with our belief system and our behaviour and using confirmation bias to validate our decisions.
Learning new information when on the right spiritual path rather than throwing us off course, helps us to mature and gain understanding we rationalise our behaviour in accordance with biblical principles and pray for guidance and wisdom. As the world is galloping towards its conclusion, we will be confronted more and more, with all kinds of situations that will be a direct test of our faith. When we are deeply rooted as in Colossians 2:7, “rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” Then we can walk in the firm reassurance that our choices and decisions in life are the direct result of divine intervention and overflowing with thankfulness will be a natural reaction.
As you go through this week, consider how often you find yourself in a state of spiritual dissonance and if the road you travel is the straight and narrow.
Dear Jesus, Please allow me to walk in the firm reassurance that you have walked this road before me. Let my faith stand strong and be reflected in the life I lead. Amen