This past weekend singer, actress, producer, and model Whitney Houston died at the young age of 48. Her career was defined by her beautiful persona and angelic voice as well as her drug use and erratic behavior. Once again we are faced with the confusion of how someone with so much going for them could leave us before their time. It’s hard for us to put conflicting parts of people together into one package but if we take a look in the mirror, we know it’s a part of the human condition for all of us.
The Cognitive Dissonance Theory was developed by Leon Festinger in 1957. As individuals we seek consistency among our cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions, actions). When there is an inconsistency between beliefs and behaviors (dissonance), it creates anxiety and something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In other words, something has to give. To alleviate the stress of living a double life, we can focus on the positive of the more important belief, reduce its importance, or change the conflicting belief so it is consistent with our other beliefs or behaviors.
I heard it explained in terms of pleasure or pain. Something gives you so much pleasure or causes you so much pain that you will eliminate the dissonance in order to preserve the pleasure or eliminate the pain. For example, a marriage may experience troubled times, but the recognition of the good it brings causes the couple to reconcile and mend the relationship. Or in the case of pain, a person is arrested and spends time incarcerated. Because of the pain induced they are “scared straight” and go on to live a life in compliance with society’s laws.
Sometimes, though, we don’t hit the high or low and our lives play out in a state of compromise and subtle self-loathing. Take for example a smoker who knows that the habit is detrimental to their health but continues by rationalizing that it keeps their weight in check. In this unfortunate case, the belief has changed to accommodate the unhealthy behavior, sometimes until it claims their life.
We all experience cognitive dissonance in our lives. In some cases, it’s a minor vice and in others its life threatening. In either case, the only thing that is capable of reconciling the discord is the individual themselves. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to enable the discord by altering what’s at the core of our identity. But when we do that, we kill a little bit of ourselves.
They say that the greatest battle is waged within the self. Don’t seek to change the behaviors of the world. Supporters of our vices, addictions and self pity are far and wide and always ready to oblige our demise. Seek to change yourself because there’s only one of you and the world needs to experience all of you it can!