When Good People do Bad Things – Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance – these are two big words for when things aren’t matchy-matchy.

When our inward values are in conflict with how we act or what we say, we can actually feel discomfort. In extreme instances, it can make us physically sick. This discomfort is called “cognitive dissonance.” Psychologists theorize that people are highly motivated to reduce cognitive dissonance. In order to do this, people tend to avoid situations that cause discomfort. They might justify their actions, change their beliefs or modify their behavior in order to be consistent with themselves. This is called “equilibrium.”

When people consistently act in ways that do not agree with their values, they will usually begin to change those values to fit their behavior instead of changing their behavior to fit their values. If someone values being honest but routinely cheats on homework and tests, he is more likely to compromise his value of honesty in order to keep cheating. If a driver values safety and abiding by the law, but routinely speeds on her way to work, she might begin to soften her views on driving safety in order to speed without feeling guilty. By altering their values, the people in these examples have reduced their discomfort – but these are not permanent solutions. They might feel better for a little while, but they won’t feel good when they are caught or when actions become habits.

Behavioral psychologists think this might be one of the reasons why “normal” people can do terrible things. Over time, they slowly change their values in order to match their behaviors and desires. One compromise leads to another, and before long, they do things they never imagined they would. This is why you must know your values and remind yourself of them often…and pass those values down to your children – helping them integrate those values as part of who they are. If you don’t make it a habit to remind yourself of those values, you might forget.

As Jim Rohn, businessman, author, and motivational speaker said, “Character isn’t something you were born with and can’t change, like your fingerprints. It’s something you weren’t born with and must take responsibility for forming.”

So…what do you value? And do your actions match up with those values?

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