Cognitive Dissonance and Compartmentalization

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No one likes to be deceived. Whenever someone attempts to pull one over on us by misleading us or flat-out lying, we are rightly frustrated or offended.

But what if the deception comes from within? Is it possible to lie to ourselves and be guilty of self-deception? Psychologists and philosophers who study the human condition respond with a resounding, “Yes!”

Self-deception is incredibly common and occurs due to a combination of factors. It primarily involves two psychological components known as cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Whenever you maintain contradictory or inconsistent thoughts, beliefs or attitudes, you will experience some degree of cognitive dissonance or a lack of inner harmony. In other words, cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable mental tension you feel when holding two conflicting thoughts in your mind at the same time.

An individual dealing with cognitive dissonance will seek to use many justifications to explain their behavior and to rationalize contradictions between what they know and what they do.

What is Compartmentalization?

One way to resolve the tension is by isolating the inconsistent views or behaviors from each other. Compartmentalization is the mental process of keeping things separate in order to avoid unpleasant feelings. It is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism that our minds use to deal with conflicting internal viewpoints.

Mentally separating aspects of our lives can give the appearance of harmony, because it temporarily relieves the tension. But in reality our lives are still out of balance and the supposed consistency is often false or even harmful.

How Does This Affect Real Life?

Cognitive dissonance creates uneasy strain in your mind, and compartmentalization helps keep the two worlds from colliding. But cognitive dissonance ultimately forces a person to favor one view over a less comfortable one, even if the more comfortable belief is wrong or dangerous. That’s why these psychological components can play a huge role in many addictive behaviors.

If you or someone you know has experienced alcohol dependence or drug addiction, you are already familiar with the practical application of this. People struggling with addiction commonly entertain contradictory ideas and behaviors.

Someone may say, “I’m not abusing oxycodone, because I have a prescription for pain.” The conflict is created because the prescription may be legitimate, but they simultaneously know they are abusing the substance beyond the prescribed purpose. This results in a self-deceptive rationalization thatdenies the problem of substance abuse.

Someone struggling with addiction generally has a great deal of evidence for how alcohol or drugs are harming their life. However, they will still continue to view these substances as solutions to their problems, rather than the cause. These two beliefs are in direct contradiction, and the desire to alleviate the mental tension leads them to blame their problems on other factors not connected with the substance abuse.

Overcoming Cognitive Dissonance in a Positive Way

Cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization cause people to change behavior to fit their thinking, change thinking to fit their behavior or adopt new attitudes or beliefs altogether to alleviate the inner conflict they feel.

Among substance abusers, this process can lead to self-deception and persistence in dangerous habits. To avoid facing unpleasant mental conflict, they may:

  • Remain trapped in denial about their problem
  • Find ways to rationalize behavior
  • Prevent taking responsibility for their actions
  • Develop distrust in others
  • Excuse ongoing addiction

There are healthy and productive ways to cope with these factors that don’t lead to self-deception. For those wrestling with cognitive dissonance, the following suggestions are a helpful place to start:

  • Work regularly with a counselor or therapist who can help you see the reality of your situation.
  • Learn to think critically, by carefully examining evidence and comparing it to the views you hold.
  • Be willing to challenge your perceptions and resist the urge to dig in your heels about certain behaviors or attitudes.

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