How Cognitive Dissonance relates to Alcohol Abuse

alcoholism and tikvah lake

The relationship between Cognitive Dissonance and Addiction is an emerging topic of fascination, particularly for addiction specialists who perhaps are seeking new ways to treat clients (it’s also helpful for those in addiction recovery).

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Cognitive Dissonance happens when an individual holds a series of contradictory beliefs, values and ideas – and is overcome by psychological stress when they partake in any action that goes against one or more of those beliefs.

As humans, we tend to strive for whatever makes us feel comfortable. Therefore, we are driven (consciously or not) by consistency.

Cognitive Dissonance theory holds the principle that when two ideas or actions clash (i.e. they are inconsistent with each other) people will do everything in their will to change these ideas until they become compatible.

Broadly, cognition is a strand of knowledge; these include:

  • Personal values
  • Behaviours
  • Thoughts
  • Attitudes

Let’s say, for example, a person discovers new information that challenges a deep-rooted belief.

They may even behave in a way that is incongruous to their perception of self, in this case, the individual (to restore Cognitive Dissonance) will often become motivated to change those negative feelings, which ultimately soothes psychological stress.

Cognitive Dissonance in Social Psychology

Cognitive Dissonance theory belongs to the sphere of Social Psychology.

Social psychologists believe Cognitive Dissonance to be a mental conflict that occurs when an individual’s beliefs and behaviours are misaligned.

Leon Fester, psychologist and author of the book; A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), proposed that people experience psychological unease when their beliefs are conflicting or when their actions and behaviours contradict each other. 

Once individuals realize just how conflicting their beliefs are, they work hard to relieve the discomfort in an attempt to resolve Dissonance – this is titled “The Principle of Cognitive Consistency”.

According to mental health experts, mental health is the ability to handle uncertainty – and those with a higher threshold for delay tend to experience less distress and Cognitive Dissonance than those with lower scores. 

Symptoms of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance can create a series of unpleasant symptoms, such as:

Frequently, individuals experiencing Cognitive Dissonance may try to conceal their feelings or beliefs by covering them up. All this is done by:

  • Refusing to absorb new information that goes against their ideas, such as a refusal to watch the news or read an article.
  • Concealing their beliefs and behaviours from other people.
  • Excluding themselves from taking part in discussions about specific topics.
  • Condoning their decisions, actions and behaviours.

When a person ignores information and facts in a bid to retain their beliefs, this often results in stagnation.

For individuals to resolve Cognitive Dissonance, they must be willing to do the work required to shift their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours into alignment with each other.

Seeking professional help for Cognitive Dissonance allows those with mental health conditions such as anger issues, personality disorders and addictions to make positive changes to their lifestyle, allowing them to move forward.

Alcohol Abuse and Cognitive Dissonance

Alcoholics (and other substance abusers) often experience Cognitive Dissonance. Addicts are fully aware of the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse but will find new and creative ways to justify their self-destructive behaviours.

Alcoholics with Cognitive Dissonance will often do what they can to overcome feelings of unease by:

  • Being in denial about the dangers of alcohol abuse (or minimizing the risks) in an attempt to view their actions as less dangerous
  • Abstaining from alcohol altogether
  • Adopting the belief that although excessive alcohol consumption might be hazardous to others, they will be fine as it won’t affect them as much (if at all)

Risks associated with Cognitive Dissonance

In alcohol recovery, Cognitive Dissonance presents many risks and challenges for both the addiction recovery specialist and patient.

Since addicts with Cognitive Dissonance indulge in patterns of delusional thinking, they often go to great lengths to protect their current understanding. 

All this might explain why certain concepts and ideas appear rational to some people and entirely irrational for others (such as an addict’s ability to justify their excessive drinking). This type of thinking makes no sense to the addicts family.

This type of increase in delusional thinking often creates many challenges for those in addiction recovery, and those hoping to avoid relapse.

The key is to notice when the pattern of delusional thinking starts to exacerbate and to challenge the feelings and thoughts to prevent relapse from occurring.

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance in Alcoholism

There are plenty of examples of how Cognitive Dissonance shows up in alcohol addiction – they include:

  • The addict believing that life is miserable and dull without alcohol
  • Giving up a habit means that life is inevitably devoid of any joy or happiness
  • Developing the belief that medical advice such as awareness campaigns against alcoholism is propaganda and that the media has indoctrinated people 
  • Believing that teetotalers are boring and since they do not abuse substances they must lack character or personality
  • Adopting the belief that it’s cool to abuse substances and only those with imagination or artistic flair will fully understand the concept of substance misuse

Treating Cognitive Dissonance in Alcohol Abuse Recovery

Fortunately, there is a wide range of treatment options available for addicts with Cognitive Dissonance such as therapy and residential treatment programs.

One on one therapy is the most effective form of treatment.

However, the addict must start with a clean slate or “beginner’s mind” for the methods in therapy to be effective. All this involves putting aside any previously held beliefs that may have been limiting or self-destructive in any way.

When people in addiction recovery begin therapy with a beginners mindset, this allows them to adapt to new thinking styles and healthier ways of behaving.

In therapy, Cognitively Dissonant individuals will start to notice a shift in previously held beliefs, and begin to acknowledge how they have justified their addictions in the past. 

Therapy is delivered in a supportive, encouraging environment where people get the opportunity to share ideas and stories. This collaboration leads to mutual understanding, paving the way for recovery from alcohol (and any other substance) addiction.

If you would like to address any self-limiting thoughts and beliefs that might be holding you back in your recovery or if you would like help with an addiction – the team at Tikvah Lake Recovery are here to help.

Contact the team today to find out more. 

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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