What cognitive dissonance has to do with our choices

The other day, reading an article I found this statement: “life is a choice between what hurts and what hurts worse“, this was written by psychotherapist Nicole Sachs and it was in the context of chronic pain, but I kept thinking how well this applied to sustainable living.

I know it sounds a bit negative, but it is true on so many levels. There is no such thing as a perfect scenario, a perfect decision, a perfect solution, a perfect green lifestyle.

Today wanted to write a bit about this topic, introduce the concept of cognitive dissonance and share some thoughts. 

The truth

The ugly truth is, regardless of any eco-friendly lifestyle we may have, we all hurt the environment in many ways every single day, because our own existence in this planet demands precious resources.

Even if I live in a mountain, in a little cottage off-the-grid, I would still hurt the planet, because I need resources to survive, keep my house relatively comfortable, perhaps buy the type of food I wouldn’t be able to grow my self, go and see a doctor, buy medication or run an errand. The big difference is: it would hurt way less, and that matters.

Weird lake

Not enough

Sometimes people’s efforts to change and do a right thing are diminished, criticised or ignored either because it is not perfect or it is not enough.

The other day, I was reading some comments on twitter, and these guys (more on the climate change side) were criticising this person who published an article about an airline ditching single-use plastic. They basically said that the emissions of those flights were far worse than the plastic items they will stop using. 

This is a totally valid point and I get it, but then what? Shouldn’t the airlines focus their energy on reducing waste because it is meaningless compared to the climate change crisis?

I wonder,  Where do we start? How do we grow? What’s perfect anyway?

Cognitive dissonance

This term is used in psychology when our beliefs and behaviours are no in sync, they are contradictory. Perfect example, I care for the environment but I still drive a car and I feel guilty about it. The video below explains this concept quite well.

According to SimplyPyschology.org: 

“This [conflict] produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.” 

So to avoid the guilt, restore balance and of course protect our self-image we can:

  • Say to ourselves: “transportation is just a small percentage of the emissions anyway, everybody does it” and ignore the problem, or
  • Focus on all the good things we are already doing to reduce our impact on the planet and keep improving from there by using more public transport and reduce the use of our car or
  • Give up the car and only use public transport.

What’s the best option? no one can argue that giving up cars will be the best approach to reduce our personal carbon footprint, that’s a fact, but is that feasible and realistic for everybody? As usual, it is an individual choice based on personal circumstances.

I believe we all suffer from cognitive dissonance in many areas of our lives because it is damn hard to do everything right/perfect every time, live a life, work/study, perhaps raise a family and have a bit fun in the process… It is tricky stuff.

I own a car and to deal with my cognitive dissonance I try to use it mostly locally, I commute to work by train and I buy carbon offsets for road trips…that’s my current reality. Are my efforts to reduce my impact pointless? I don’t think so. 

And these are not “excuses” to avoid trying, to disengage; we can always do more – we are learning, evolving and growing – but basically we have to start somewhere and keep improving, instead of feeling guilty and overwhelmed.  

I reckon there is not straight answer here, and at the end of the day everyone has a different list of values/beliefs and even if it is similar for some people, in that list those values are perhaps prioritised differently. So as much as we have an opinion about something, the conflict of our actions is with ourselves and what we believe in, not with others. Let’s try to find the best way to resolve them and keep learning.

Final words

My point with presenting this concept today is to highlight the importance of understanding our beliefs vs behaviour, being aware of any existing conflict and try to keep improving our dissonances the best we can.

Going back to Nicole’s saying, it is more about acknowledging what hurts worse, and try our best to reduce it. We can all make a difference one step at a time

“I used to think one person couldn’t make a difference,but now I see if everyone does their bit,it all adds up”- Diana Carroll,Boomerang Bags

Please let me know in the comments below: Had you heard about this concept before? How does it apply to you?

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Thanks for reading,

Diana

By | 2019-04-26T11:43:56+10:00 April 26th, 2019|Reflections|2 Comments

About the Author:

I am Diana. I write about my journey trying to live a greener lifestyle and how we collectively can make a difference revisiting our beliefs and daily habits, learning more about the environment and being an active participant.

2 Comments

  1. Ram Mohan Murugesan May 30, 2019 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    Very interesting and useful concept, Diana.Some times, I encounter upon this issue. At that time, I try to rationalize my thoughts and do right things.

    I think doing something for nature’s cause is better than doing nothing. This particular thought keeps me going in my sustainable journey.

    • GreenerIdentity June 6, 2019 at 11:08 pm - Reply

      It is indeed. We can’t be “perfect”, but strive to improve and keep learning. it is not great to deal with these cognitive dissonances, but that’s part of the journey 😉
      Thanks for the comment
      Cheers
      Diana

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