How Cognitive Dissonance Plays a Role in Addiction

How Cognitive Dissonance Plays a Role in Addiction

Cognitive dissonance is the tension that is perceived by the conflict of a belief and an opposing desire with which the mind is faced. This inconsistency produces discomfort and anxiety. We are driven to reconcile those conflicting thoughts, beliefs and desires or behaviors to preserve harmony in our minds and make ourselves feel rationally better.

Three Ways the Individual Can Resolve the Conflict:

  1. Change the behavior to match more closely to one’s beliefs. The individual just stops doing whatever is causing the dissonance.
  2. Change the beliefs to match the behavior. This is most commonly used by addicts.
  3. Keep the original beliefs, but add a new idea that will be acceptable to both the beliefs and the behavior. Addicts will use this as well, saying that they are the exception to the rule, believing they will be able to manage their addiction, or that they have a particularly strong constitution.

Addiction causes a great deal of cognitive dissonance. In order to restore consonance, the subconscious mind resolves the cognitive dissonance by changing the addict’s perception of reality. Towards that end it puts defense mechanisms into play.

The user who is spiraling into addiction still knows on some level that what they are doing is not good for them, but they find the substance abuse to be an easier path because it blocks out unwanted ideas, feelings and responsibilities. The addict begins to construct a world of lies and obfuscation where their self-destructive behavior is justified. They rely heavily on defense mechanisms such as denial, rationalization and minimization to help them resolve their conflict. The cognitive dissonance is effectively wiped clean by changing how they feel about their addiction. This allows for the convoluted “logic” of the addiction to take hold and become the distorted world of the addict. Harmful and painful addictive behaviors require a maze of lies, distortions, and psychotic denial to fend off the natural corrective consequences of cognitive and behavioral dissonance resulting from addiction. 

One cannot reason with the addict or use logic and data to persuade them out of their distorted reality. They are willing to increase their own delusional thinking in order to protect their current addiction. This explains why the addict will hold on to beliefs and ideas that are wholly illogical and obviously irrational to others. When asked why they are doing this to the family or to themselves, they always have a ready answer, although it is mostly for their own comfort, rather than for the others to make sense of.

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance in the Addict’s Life

  1. They feel people who do not abuse substances are boring or lack character.
  2. Substance abuse is a sign of the artistic or bohemian life
  3. Believing that all the talk about the dangers of substance abuse is just propaganda with no basis in reality and that people are just being brainwashed.
  4. Life is miserable and only substance abuse can make it bearable.
  5. For those who see that their substance abuse is causing problems, they hold on to the belief that the good times will come back.
  6. Those who gave up the addiction can no longer lead happy lives and are deprived of any joy.

The defense mechanisms that the addict places around themselves to keep cognitive dissonance at bay need to be addressed in order to start the recovery process. Many addicts need to hit a personal rock bottom in order to see through the denial and decide that they have had enough. They must be willing to make the change in their lives. Only when the addict is ready, could they possibly have a chance to see the cognitive dissonance for what it is and what the addiction has caused. This is when the negatives of the addiction, including guilt and shame, can dominate the decisions they make.

The Dangers of Cognitive Dissonance in An Addict:

  1. The substance abuser will always think they are right. It is extremely difficult to reason with them.
  2. They will always be able to justify any poor decision they make. And they will always find someone to blame if things go badly, or put it down to bad luck.
  3. It can prevent the addict from taking responsibility for their own life.
  4. Often, the addict will distrust those who would help them.

For those involved in substance abuse, they must contend with constant dissonance because there is so much compelling evidence that their substance abuse is dangerous. Cognitive dissonance is the fundamental coping mechanism that addicts use throughout their active addiction and can often follow them into recovery as well. The recovering addict is not immune from the continuing battle with cognitive dissonance. Since this has been the normal way of thinking for the addict, it will continue to plague them as they struggle through their recovery. They can have setbacks or relapses and when they do, they can justify it just as they did active addiction.

Getting good therapy to help them with this struggle is important. They should also try having a beginner’s mind when learning new things. The beginner’s mind is setting aside one’s old beliefs and opinions to contemplate new ideas and information. The recovering addict is better off learning to let go of old notions and beliefs. If they come across better information than they had, they should be willing to make changes to their way of thinking.

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