Cognitive dissonance and gaslighting can co-occur. But, what do such terms mean, and does one buffer the other?
When confronted with contradictory thoughts, behaviours, and ideas, it’s easy to dip into a state of cognitive dissonance (When Cognitive Dissonance Leads To Gaslighting Ourselves, Scarlett Jess Perrodin,16 December 2021).
There is a fine line between cognitive dissonance and gaslighting; this article will explore the key differences and how they can impact our mental health and relationships.
Let’s start by exploring cognitive dissonance.
What is cognitive dissonance?
There are various descriptions of cognitive dissonance on and offline.
However, one explanation is that cognitive dissonance is the state of having inconsistent beliefs, thoughts, behaviours, or perceptions, especially concerning attitude change and behavioural decisions.
Two conflicting ideas or thoughts
The American Psychological Association (APA) describes cognitive dissonance as ”an unpleasant psychological state resulting from inconsistency between two or more elements in a cognitive system” (American Psychological Association, Cognitive Dissonance).
Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person experiences internal discomfort and mental conflict when their behaviour and cognition contradict each other (When Cognitive Dissonance Leads To Gaslighting Ourselves, Scarlett Jess Perrodin, 16 December 2021).
Experiencing cognitive dissonance
As humans, we tend to seek consistency in our lives; this could be from our behaviour, attitudes, or beliefs, we like things to add up, and when they don’t, this can cause anxiety, conflict, and discomfort.
In situations where there are inconsistencies between what we feel and how we behave – we may become motivated to engage in behaviours or actions that will help minimise feelings of conflict or unease.
What are the signs of cognitive dissonance?
We’ve all experienced cognitive dissonance at some stage. Still, the warning signs can sometimes be challenging to recognise, especially if you are unaware of them.
Some of the signs and symptoms of cognitive dissonance include:
- Justifying or rationalising a decision you’ve made or action you have taken
- Experiencing discomfort before doing something or making a decision
- Feeling embarrassed or ashamed about a decision or something you have done in the past and attempting to hide your actions from other people.
- Engaging in activities or behaviours due to social pressure or FOMO (fear of missing out), despite not wanting to do them
- Experiencing remorse, regret, or guilt about past actions
Cognitive dissonance examples
Cognitive dissonance can show up in various areas of your life. Below are some examples of cognitive dissonance.
Suppose you want to lead a healthier lifestyle and decide to quit smoking or drinking.
However, the desire to drink or smoke is too intense after a while. Thus, you cave in and justify your actions by blaming your stressful job or home life.
Or let’s say you have a list of essential errands to run, but rather than completing them, you binge-watch your favourite Netflix show instead.
You may experience guilt and regret over neglecting these tasks and lie to your partner about how productive your day has been.
Another example of cognitive dissonance is forced compliance.
For example, you might behave against your beliefs or standards due to societal pressures such as work, school, or social situations.
The above may involve going along with something that you don’t agree with to avoid social backlash or getting fired.
Theory of cognitive dissonance
Leon Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance in the 1950s.
He conceptualised the dissonance or a sense of unease that a person feels when dealing with inconsistent pieces of information (Leon Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, 4 September 2022).
Festinger spoke of the dissonance that occurs when the mind attempts to make inconsistent information consistent.
The problem with cognitive dissonance is that an individual often rationalises their decisions or choices that go against their intuition or gut feeling by gaslighting themselves to move forward in a direction that does not feel right.
Ignoring the truth
When we feel something to the bone-deep but go against our gut feeling or hunch, the inconsistency resulting from opposing thoughts may motivate us to minimise any feelings of discomfort.
Thus, we gaslight ourselves into believing that we are okay with something when we aren’t. We might even convince ourselves we are happy with a decision despite the discomfort we experience because of our choices.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is different from cognitive dissonance and is considered to have much darker undertones.
Emotionally abusive tactics
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse and manipulation that often occurs in abusive relationships.
Perception and reality
People who use this form of manipulation mislead their victims by making them question their perceptions and sense of reality.
They do this by creating false narratives about specific situations or events.
The term ”gaslighting” originates from the 1944 American psychological thriller Gaslight, in which a husband gaslights his wife into believing she is going crazy by dimming the lights in the house and questioning her sanity when she brings it up.
Such a term has aged well in popular culture, and many use it to describe a form of emotional abuse that often occurs in relationships.
Gaslighting victims may question their thoughts, feelings, and perceptions and even believe they are losing their sanity.
Gaslighting the self
People often gaslight themselves, too, albeit unconsciously.
For example, you may sense that your partner is cold or indifferent towards you. However, you may convince yourself that your perceptions are wrong or that you imagine things.
The above is an example of when gaslighting and cognitive dissonance overlap.
The distinction between such terms can be hard to discern; you feel one thing (i.e., you notice your partner’s indifference towards you) but act in opposition to that feeling by telling yourself that your gut feeling is wrong.
How people attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance
Researchers have noted several ways people react to (or attempt to resolve) cognitive dissonance.
Let’s stick with the hypothetical scenario where you think your partner is acting or behaving differently towards you.
In that case, rather than confronting your partner about your concerns, you may try to resolve or minimise your gut feelings to avoid unpleasant emotions or outcomes.
- Change your beliefs entirely
- Make attempts to reduce the importance of the cognitive belief
- Add additional supportive ideas that outweigh dissonant beliefs
Taking back control
Mental health professionals state that to reduce cognitive dissonance and avoid self-gaslighting, we must become aware of the contradictions between our actions and beliefs.
Understanding that prolonged dissonance can lead to an acute increase in discomfort and harmful coping mechanisms is vital for those who engage in cognitive dissonance.
Some experts believe that responding to cognitive dissonance through therapies such as mindfulness can be beneficial since it allows people to identify inconsistencies between their thoughts and behaviours.
Recognising the gap between our feelings and behaviour can help us examine and stick to our values. It can also give us a deeper insight into the self and increase our awareness and knowledge about who we are.
Becoming the best version of yourself
Being the best version of yourself is a phrase many of us have heard, perhaps more than once or twice.
However, this can be challenging in a world that encourages us to people-please and put ourselves last.
A mental disconnect occurs when we engage in self-gaslighting and cognitive dissonance, but there are ways to reconnect with ourselves and thrive.
Finding a sense of consistency within
When you engage in cognitive dissonance, you may find it helpful to challenge your perceptions and ideologies.
This process may help you identify any painful or destructive thought patterns and allow you to find a sense of balance and consistency within yourself.
Staying true to yourself can help you live your life in the most meaningful, authentic way.
Challenging your beliefs and exploring the motivation behind some of your behaviours can help you find peace and live the fulfilling life you deserve.
Help and support
If you would like more information about this article or are concerned about your mental health, the White River Manor team can help.
We aim to help you become the best version of yourself by offering treatment programs that cultivate compassion, knowledge, self-awareness, and recovery.
Contact our specialist team today to begin your wellness journey.
- When Cognitive Dissonance Leads To Gaslighting Ourselves: Scarlett Jess Perrodin, 16 December 2021
- What Is Gaslighting? Signs of Gaslighting and What to Do: Verywell mind, Sherri Gordon, 25 July 2022