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Sometimes our behavior and our beliefs just… don’t match. And a lot of times this mismatch can lead to stress. What’s happening in our brains when we’re inconsistent? Can we learn anything from this discomfort?

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In the 1950s, a cult in the U. S. believed the world would be destroyed by  a flood on December 21st, 1954.   Many of its members were so convinced  that they left their jobs and   gave away all their possessions. ...and then came December 22nd.   As you can imagine, the group felt a gnawing  sense of discomfort.

But they also contributed   a lot to the field of psychology. See, three social psychologists had infiltrated   this group, and one — named Leon Festinger  — gave a name to the group’s inner conflict.   He called it cognitive dissonance, and  it’s now a huge area of research. You’ve   probably even experienced it before.

But cognitive dissonance isn’t always a bad   thing. In fact, it can be a major way we grow —  at least, if you know how to spot it.   Cognitive dissonance is a state of  uneasiness that happens when you have   inconsistent beliefs or behaviors. You may have felt it when you learned new   information about the world that contradicted  something you’d believed for a long time.   Or maybe you learned something about your behavior  that conflicted with your sense of self.   For example, someone might experience  cognitive dissonance if they believe   they’re not a prejudiced person, but  after a psychological test, they realize   they have a lot of implicit biases.

This discomfort can come up in all kinds   of scenarios, though, and we can even see it in  the brain — notably, in the region that monitors   errors in your thoughts and actions, the one  involved in rationalizing and cognitive control,   and one likely involved in emotions,  especially anger and disgust.   Of course, knowing how our brains  respond to this stress doesn’t make   these feelings any easier — and it doesn’t  make it easier to admit we’re wrong.   Instead, how hard it is to change your mind about  something depends on what psychologists call   your “resistance to change.” And that trait depends on a few factors,   such as how much you identify with your belief,  how much satisfaction you get from your behavior,   and how much pain or loss you’d have  to endure to change those things.   For example, let’s say you see yourself  as an advocate for the environment.   But then you learn that the company  you work for makes, like, Evil Villain   levels of pollution and refuses to change. If you don’t like the job and you have another   opportunity, you could leave. Your resistance to  changing your behavior would be pretty low.   But if you’ve been working there for years and are  invested in the company, quitting would be harder,   because you’d experience more loss.

Your  resistance to change would be much higher.   One way to get around this would be to change  your belief — to decide that, eh, maybe you   aren’t an environmental advocate after all. But if that’s not an option, your brain might try   other strategies to reduce your uneasiness. For instance, you might try to rationalize   your thinking or behavior by finding  positive things about your company.   Or you might think of things that are even worse  and make your job seem lovely by comparison.   Like, you might remind yourself  that your company creates jobs and   a better quality of life for some people.

Or you might read stories about other companies   that dump toxic waste into the ocean and tell  yourself that your company is so much greener   than that. Then, you can keep thinking of yourself  as an advocate with a clean conscience.   This is just one example, of course — cognitive  dissonance can apply to all kinds of ways we   react to the world, and there are also plenty  of other ways we tend to react to it.   Like, we might try and protect ourselves from  discomfort by engaging in selective exposure.   That’s where someone only listens to people and  media sources that agree with them, and dismisses   other voices that challenge their worldview. Studies suggest that our brains may also skew our   memories to reduce the feeling that  our thoughts are inconsistent.   For example, in a 2014 paper, 121 students who  didn’t want their tuition to increase were asked   to write an essay supporting higher tuition.

Afterward, they became more in favor of tuition   increases… but they also misremembered  themselves as being okay with higher   tuition in the first place. And finally, there’s the most simple one:   When faced with evidence that we might be  wrong, our brains can just completely ignore   whatever’s making us uncomfortable. The point is, we really don’t like feeling   inconsistent.

And consciously or not, we’ll  go a long way to reduce the feeling that   our thoughts or actions don’t line up with  the way we see ourselves or the world.   Still, cognitive dissonance  isn’t always bad.   There are fewer studies about this, but it seems  like this discomfort can also help us grow and   make better decisions — like by leaving an  unhealthy job, or identifying biased beliefs.   So, what can you do about your brain’s  clever schemes to reduce it?   Well, psychologists recommend you pay attention  to your initial response to new information   and remind yourself that you’re probably  more biased than you want to think.   Then, you can make a deliberate effort to  question your response and analyze it.   And also, it doesn’t hurt to do some research to  make sure your beliefs and actions are based on   evidence and not on the tricky games your brain  is playing to ease your inner conflict.   Because in some cases, the first step to defeating  your brain is knowing what it’s up to.   Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow  Psych. This channel is all about understanding   our minds and how they work, and we’ve done  episodes on everything from mental health   to implicit bias. So if you want to learn  more, you can watch another episode after this   or hit subscribe. {♫Outro♫}.