The brain can’t stand to be wrong. In fact, it will do whatever it takes to be right. Rightfully so, because we just want the world to make sense. So, when your belief about something doesn’t match up with reality, there’s a mental battle. This concept is a psychological principle of motivation known as cognitive dissonance.
Your mind will jump through hoops to make things right. Why is cognitive dissonance important for you and your goals? Because you can use it on yourself. Doing so will help you make healthier choices in fitness and nutrition. You can even do it for other goals when you need motivation. How do these mental battles work to get you results? When the belief-reality mismatch happens, we either change our behaviors or we change our thoughts. Pretty simple. Here are 4 things you can do today to make that mental battle work on your terms.
Cognitive Dissonance and Mental Battles
When there’s a disconnect between what you think and what’s happening, mental battles and tension rises. This is cognitive dissonance. As a human, you try to get out of it to feel like the world and your beliefs are in harmony. You get out of it by 1 of 3 ways.
1. Change the Behavior
Your first way to get out of this mental tension is to change the reality around you. Take the example of getting a personal trainer. You get a trainer because you want to lose weight. The trainer is the expert. If the trainer tells you specifics on what to do and you don’t do it, there’s cognitive dissonance. So, you remember you spent money on the trainer and you want to get in shape. Your next logical step is to change your behavior according to what the professional says. In this example, you change the behavior- not your goals or your perception of the trainer as the expert. Behavior is the easiest thing for you to change because we have less of an emotional attachment to them. Thoughts and beliefs, on the other hand, are a different story.
2. Change the Thought
Using the example of the trainer again, say you don’t do what they recommend. Instead, you start to change your belief about why you got a trainer in the first place. You start thinking its less about losing weight and more about just being more active. Maybe you decide it isn’t even about being active. Instead you change your mind to think, “I just wanted to test it out and see if it’s worth it”. In this case, you relieve the cognitive dissonance by changing the thought, not the action. Again, this one is tougher to change because it carries an internal “I was wrong” message.
3. Justify It Away
Once more, let’s use the weight loss and trainer example. In this case, you have your trainer, you have the goal, but you aren’t doing what you should. To make it better, you might think, “This trainer doesn’t know what he’s doing anyways” or “She doesn’t understand how hard it is to lose weight, so she doesn’t get it”. With these examples, you didn’t change your goal and you didn’t change behavior. You just found a reason for why there was the disconnect between what you’re doing and what you want to happen.
Which Do I Use?
You won’t consciously decide which way to relieve your cognitive dissonance. Instead, you’ll go with the past of least resistance. What’s the hardest thing to change when you want to relieve cognitive dissonance? The belief. As humans, we own our beliefs. Therefore, changing your mind about something is harder than changing your behavior or just justifying the disconnect. “What if I decide I don’t want to lose weight anymore?” This isn’t likely. You know you need to lose weight. You’d be more likely to take the trainer’s recommendations than change your mindset. More so, you’d be likely to find a justification. Knowing this, be on the look out for justifications. And, if you find yourself making them or if you find yourself switching your thoughts, get the right mindset to stop it in its tracks. You can read about that here, in getting the right Weight Loss Mindset.
Tips for Using Cognitive Dissonance
If you’re wondering, “How do I get motivated to get to my goals?”, we’ve got some tips for you. Use one, none, or all of them. It’s up to you. But now you have the knowledge and awareness so it’s likely that cognitive dissonance is already starting for you. Here are our most recommended ways to use cognitive dissonance to your advantage.
Wherever you are right now, chances are you want a little bit of something else. It might be losing weight, being more productive at work, improving your relationships, or eating better. It doesn’t matter. Just decide what you want to change.
Then, write a future testimonial as you, after you accomplished your goals. Assume failure is impossible. Write, don’t just imagine, everything about how life is now. In as much detail as possible, describe what everyday looks like. What are your thoughts like? How do you overcome your bad habits (make it up if you don’t know yet). What does it physically feel like to be the new you? How do your friends, family, and coworkers respond to the new version of you? This is important, so spend as much time as you need. Try to draft at least one page of your testimonial (written in the present tense even though you’re imagining it as the future).
Take a break from your New You Testimonial and then go back to it. Look at all the specific details you wrote. They’re all statements of what you aren’t right now. They are the beliefs of what you want. Keep your New You Testimonial somewhere you can see it. Or, make it a habit to read it intentionally a few times a day. This is where you’re using cognitive dissonance to your advantage. You’ll be surprised at the insight it gives you and you’ll see small changes in your day to day actions that align with your statement. It won’t be overnight. It might take a year. But hang onto it because it’s one of the best ways you can use psychology to increase your motivation.
For the most part, this is food logging. But, if nutrition isn’t part of what you want to change then it can be anything. Accurate food logging works because of the concept of cognitive dissonance. You decide nutrition plays a role in getting you the results you want. So, you start writing it down. If there’s discrepancy, your actions start to change to be more in line with what you want. You can read more about food logging and tips to make it work for you here. But the bottom line is that cognitive dissonance is at play here. Fitness and nutrition professionals tell clients to do it for a reason. It works. So, make it work for you and start influencing yourself for the behaviors you want to change.
Make It Social
So many people tell you to involve your social support system. Although those recommendations are on point, they aren’t for the most impactful reasons. It isn’t necessarily that telling your friends will make them support you. That’s not their job (to a certain degree) and it isn’t the driving force behind getting you results. It’s tough to hold them accountable to supporting you. Instead, the mental battles of cognitive dissonance plays a bigger role when you tell your friends and family. When you tell someone something, it’s a type of commitment. People typically don’t want to lie to people they care about. So, when you tell someone your goals you’re committing to them. And then you’re more likely to follow through with it rather than deal with the mental battles.
Imagery, visualization, it’s called a lot of different things. Here, you are going through the motions in your mind’s eye. Some people might think it isn’t worth it or it’s not for them. But, when you rehearse something in your mind, it activates areas of your brain that responsible for carrying out the action. Imagery works for many reasons. It’s used over and over again in sport and exercise psychology. But, in relation to cognitive dissonance and mental battles, it works because it further cements your beliefs.
Practice it and put as much detail around it as possible. The more you do it, the more you’re grounding your beliefs and they’re growing strong roots! This makes it harder for you to justify things away when the mental battles wage war. It creates even more cognitive dissonance if your actions don’t line up with what you have imagined. You can start off spending time once a day, for 1 minute. In that time, just think about the future you in as much detail as possible.
Those are the highlights for cognitive dissonance and how to use psychology tips on yourself to increase motivation and get to your goals. If you don’t buy into them, that’s okay. The challenge is to just try one or a few of them for a certain amount of time. If you want to read more, this is an interesting read about reactions on social media that support the cognitive dissonance in action.
Pay attention to your behaviors and your results and see if things made a difference. Use your mental battles to fight for you not against you.