Cognitive Dissonance as Foundation for Taoist and Stoic Practices

Before digging into this piece I wanted to call attention to the person who helped spark the discussion. Alex MacLellan is the creator and host of the Stoic Psychologist podcast. He is a student of psychology himself and uses his show to highlight the intersections between psychology, especially cognitive behavioral psychology, and Stoicism. He has presented at Stoic Week and has recorded some wonderful interviews with leaders in the modern Stoic movement. I highly encourage anyone interested in this suite of ideas to give his shows a listen.

After hearing an episode he did digging into some questions about Cognitive Dissonance Theory, I was inspired to dig deeper into how this concept might relate to something that I see going on as a foundation within both Taoism and Stoicism. One final note is that my personal focus is on these two philosophical traditions, I think that much of what I discuss here applies to any tradition that shares the same focus, such as Buddhism, contemplative Christianity, etc, but I will only be referring to my chosen philosophies here for simplicity.

Cognitive Dissonance

Before I get any further I would like to lay out a basic idea of what I am talking about when I am talking about cognitive dissonance. There is a quite good Wikipedia article that lays out the history and scope of this psychological theory, along with several refutations that have been proposed over the years. It also includes links to several of the key scientific findings that have helped to develop and challenge aspects of this theory. I am not a psychologist or a scientist, and I will be approaching this from a broader perspective of key mechanics at play that I think most people will be able to recognize from moments of their own experience as humans.

Cognitive dissonance is essentially the situation of believing something, while acting in a way that seemingly goes against that belief. Common and striking examples might be: the person on a diet who ends up eating a donut for breakfast, the person who champions sustainability causes while not taking their reusable shopping bags to the market with them and bringing home a plastic one, or the person who complains of feeling stuck in a situation but then refuses to take advice in order to remove themselves from that situation.

Of course not every example of cognitive dissonance is negative is the same way as the above situations might convey. There are countless micro decisions that we make each day about our lives, and inevitably we find ourselves making choices which might seem at odds with the larger set of values that we say we ascribe to.

Cognitive dissonance isn’t passive however. It occurs reflexively within our brains as we are making the decisions and immediately afterward. Our minds seem to automatically correct for this dissonance as it occurs. Some of the scientists theorize that this is necessary for us to do in order to preserve the ongoing narrative we tell ourselves about who we are. If we were to absorb every inconsistency it would destroy the narrative, and would harm our ability to hold driving beliefs about ourselves. This narrative shapes the trajectory of our lives and allow us to maintain relationships with others.

This is because our internal values are based upon the limited scope of experience we have in the world. Each of us builds our own scaffolding within which we are able to have a personality and identity based on the life we have lived. Exposure to new people and new situations will always have the potential to challenge our currently held beliefs, which will automatically trigger dissonance.

There are several ways in which a person will account for and adjust to the dissonance as it occurs. They may accept the new information by adjusting their internal values and expectations. They may reject the new information outright and essentially pretend that they never heard it. They may also justify the new information in a way that allows them to hold the two opposing sets of information at the same time, or create a temporary set of beliefs so that current information can be treated as an anomaly.

In the majority of cases the level of dissonance barely registers. It might be the decision about which type of cereal to buy (low sugar or low cost?) that will resolve itself without a significant awareness of discomfort. There has been some study to outline a basic framework for how strongly any given instance of cognitive dissonance will appear to the individual. Stronger instances of discomfort will arise when the beliefs being challenged are deep-seated and tightly held, or closely tied to a sense of identify. The stronger the dissonance spike the more drastic the likely adjustment. These strong reactions may drive real change in core beliefs or changes in habitual actions, but they can also trigger equally strong retreats into current beliefs and strong rejection of new information.

Another interesting finding is that cognitive dissonance cannot be thought of as a single instance at all, with each individual discrepancy registering separately. No, it seems that each instance builds upon the rest, creating what could be thought of a cognitive dissonance “load” on the person over time. The greater the number of beliefs being challenged throughout the day and the greater the number of adjustments that are being made even if they are micro adjustments, creates a baseline level of psychological stress within the individual.

Consequences of Cognitive Dissonance

Carrying around a heavy load day in and day out requires real energy and mental bandwidth. When challenged with new information and given the opportunity to experience new things, the person who is already burdened will likely opt for a familiar place where they are unlikely to be challenged. It becomes harder to take in new information, and while juggling the ongoing subconscious battle it becomes nearly impossible to appropriately weigh challenging arguments in a light of true impartiallity.

I think that this is easily seen in many corners of western society at present, perhaps most significantly within the political realm. We cannot be an expert on all areas of knowledge required to judge many of the situations happening in our world on a daily basis, but our unprecedented access to 24/7 news and research exposes us to an unending stream of information that must be processed subconsciously even if we don’t take the time to critically think about it consciously. The load builds up in each of us one drip at a time.

No wonder, then, that people must find safe spaces in which their own core values are reflected back at them. Perhaps this is part of the recent talk about tribes, and the importance of finding other like minded people. It can be seen as an escape, as burying one’s head in the sand, but I think it bears acknowledging that we are all guilty, and without the protected space in which we can relieve some of this load, we will not be able to put in the work on actually addressing moments of dissonance that will have more influential consequences for our future actions.

Like all things, the nature of the phenomenon itself can be neither good nor bad, only our reaction to it, the way in which we handle it, can be judged beneficial or harmful to ourselves. If we retreat into our tribes and help to build walls against those who think differently, then we are only making it more difficult to get ourselves out of that box once more. What I am interested in exploring from here on out is how cognitive dissonance can be the foundation for self-improvement.

Cognitive Dissonance as Conscience

What we are talking about here is really the natural self-correcting process by which we notice where our thoughts and actions might not be in alignment. By another name we might call this conscience in action, the green cricket that sits on our shoulder and points out that maybe we ought to rethink the way we are going about our lives. One of the first skills often talked about in relationship to mediation is the ability to be aware of one’s own thoughts. If we do not pay attention to our own thoughts how can we be expected to begin changing them? If we do not realize that our actions and values are not in alignment, how do we go about evaluating them?

In order for this system to work in our favor, it must be able to give us a clear signal that will spur us into positive change. From what we have talked about earlier, the clearest signals come when the values in play are strongly held and core to our sense of self. Both Taoism and Stoicism use techniques to help us get in touch with our own individual nature. The core goal for each of them is to help us live in alignment with our own selves and the nature of the world around us. By increasing awareness of ourselves through meditation, daily journalling practices and qigong we more consciously review and assess our values.

A common Taoist meditation focuses on the idea that we can “turn the light around” and try to look at the source of where our thoughts and beliefs are coming from. Meditation not only guides us to more thoughtfully consider our values in an active way, but it also seems to help in reducing our overall mental load, helping to open up more bandwidth that then allows us the space to hold these beliefs and examine them in a more comfortable way, rather than letting the automatic activities of cognitive dissonance file them away for us.

By examining our values in this way they become more crystallized and more clear, which strengthens the cognitive dissonance as it occurs. For me it is similar to what has occurred during my adoption of a basic stretching routine. As I slowly work my muscles and build up more familiarity with the way that my body feels, it has also become much more clear for me to notice when I am feeling stiff, or when something is out of alignment in my posture. This sets off the foundation of a virtuous cycle within my body. I am more sensitive to bad posture, which then triggers me to adjust my posture so that I no longer feel the discomfort, which aids long term in the maintenance of good posture overall.

By using the tools of Taoism and Stoicism to examine and strengthen our values, we also strengthen the internal mechanism which helps us to notice and self-correct these values as well as our actions.

This system isn’t just a system of guardrails, it is actually the system by which we integrate new information and adapt to it. We cannot adjust our perspective with new information without challenging it against our current beliefs. Taken another way, we cannot grow and evolve our values unless we expose them to information not already known to us.

Taoism has a lot to say about curiosity, and I think this is a place where it comes uniquely into focus. It is good to have a clear set of values and to live by them, but can we really know how clear or steadfast those values are if we do not expose ourselves to new information? Curiosity is a virtue in an of itself because the more we learn about the world and people around us, the more information we have about ourselves. When we expand ourselves beyond our “comfort zone”, is this not just another way to describe putting ourselves into the path of cognitive dissonance intentionally?

One final aspect of cognitive dissonance that I want to highlight in a positive way is that most often our values are challenged and adjusted automatically. There will be times during which we will be able to sit consciously with our values, but more often then not they are being adjusted subconsciously in the background of our everyday lives. Building a strong value foundation through Taoist or Stoic practices not only strengthens the ability of our conscience to alert of potential issues, but it also helps our subconscious system to better self-correct. The deeper and more clear our values are, the simpler it will be for our minds to sort them and course-correct in an appropriate way. Rather than rejecting information and building walls, we will be able to absorb and adjust while having the humility to learn and grow, knowing where our core values begin and end.

Another positive outcome of all this is that I believe it provides for a reduction in cognitive load. When we can clearly articulate our values and core beliefs we will have less cause to spend time spinning our mental wheels and enduring the psychological stress caused by carrying these discrepancies around in our minds. Perhaps one piece of enlightenment is simply the expansive mental resources we have at our disposal when they aren’t being constantly used to try and figure out who we think we ought to be in any given moment.

Key Concept, or The Concept?

Taoism and Stoicism both value having clear perceptions of the world around us and our relationship to it. In order to do this and to live a skillful or virtuous life, we must constantly work to learn who we are, what we value, and how to live in accordance with our own nature. I think it is clear that the mechanism of cognitive dissonance is tailored for exactly this process. We seem to be naturally built to do this for ourselves. It is hardwired into our minds and has been documented and studied for decades, with much more left to describe.

If this is the underlaying psychological mechanism that allows us to take in new information and reform our sense of who we are, isn’t that more than just a helpful way to describe the process?

If we are to think about the scope of where things fit in, should we be thinking about cognitive dissonance as an aspect within these philosophies? Would it not be more appropriate to say that Taoism and Stoicism are the initial steps we use in order to build our cognitive dissonance muscles?

This is certainly a discussion I would like to explore further in another post, because I think it may have some interesting implications for how we think about the position of philosophy within our lives and.

Curiosity and Kindness

If nothing else I wanted to use this post as a way to point out that Taoism and Stoicism seem to be pointing the way we are built to go naturally. By following the helpful guidance of these philosophies we can strengthen an internal system that, like a muscle, will become even stronger with use, and will make the work of self discovery easier along the way.

In order to take advantage of it we need only look to some core beliefs while treating ourselves with kindness. Like any workout regimin it might be awkward and painful at first. We may not look quite as good in the mirror as we imagine ourselves standing next to other sages in the gym mirror, but if we don’t take those first steps we will never discover the further benefits.

Once we are on the track, all that is required is that we continue to approach the world with curiosity, open to new experiences, and seeking out things that we do not already know.

Of all the values that I would like to be known by, I think that kindness and curiosity are pretty good ones. Thanks for reading, and please, let us make this a conversation. I would love to hear if this resonates with you or inspires follow-up thoughts.

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