Our Reaction to Cognitive Dissonance Can Keep Us Trapped in Addiction


Why Our Brain May Attempt to Justify the Unjustifiable

Even when the negative effects of alcohol or drug abuse become impossible to ignore, we can still have a strong inner need to justify our behaviour. This happens because one of the key tasks of our ego is to maintain the appearance of consistency and rationality – even when it is blatantly obvious to others that we are behaving irrationally and inconsistently.

So why would our brain try to rationalize continued substance abuse? How could our thoughts support maladaptive behaviour that is killing us? Well, this happens because our ego is attempting to deal with a type of mental distress known as cognitive dissonance.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

I left school at 15 years of age with no qualifications. When I was 18, I got a job working in a pub in Oxford, and this meant I regularly came into contact with students who were highly qualified academically. Spending time around these people was a constant reminder of my lack of qualifications, and it triggered in me a state of cognitive dissonance.

The term ‘cognitive dissonance’ means our brain has become aware of a conflict in our attitudes, beliefs, or behaviour. In my case, this conflict was due to a deep desire to go to university combined with the belief that I wasn’t intelligent enough to do this. These two beliefs were in conflict with one another, and it led to inner discomfort until my brain resolved the conflict with a new belief – I decided most students were actually stupid and lacked common sense.

When we experiencing a state of cognitive dissonance it is usually because our behaviour is in conflict with our beliefs and ideas. There are three strategies our brain can use to resolve the situation:

• Strategy 1 - We can change the behaviour
• Strategy 2 - We can change the belief
• Strategy 3 - We can adopt a new belief to explain away the cognitive dissonance

How The Brain’s Response to Cognitive Dissonance Can Keep Us Trapped in Addiction

Over time, the negative effects of substance abuse become increasingly obvious. We reach a stage where it becomes impossible to ignore the impact of our behaviour on ourselves and others, yet there is still a strong urge to continue with it because of the physical and psychological effects of addiction. We are in a state of cognitive dissonance which the brain tries to resolve so which strategy should the brain choose to protect our ego?

• Changing our behaviour is the most obvious way to escape this internal conflict, but this might not be an option we are even willing to consider
• Changing the belief can be difficult to pull off because there is so much information about the dangers of addiction
• Adopting a new belief can be the most attractive option – e.g. we may decide that life without alcohol or drugs would be boring and miserable so the rational thing to do would be to just continue as we are

It is important to understand that resolving cognitive dissonance is not something we do consciously – it is not like we sit down with pen and paper to weight up the pros and cons. It is a defence mechanism implemented unconsciously by our brain in an attempt to protect the ego even though ultimately it can cause us a great deal of harm.

Cognitive Dissonance and Relapse

If we are not careful, the brain’s attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance can lead us right back to active addiction. This is far more likely to happen if we are ambivalent towards recovery (i.e. not fully committed).

By the time you leave rehab, your brain will be packed-full of reasons not to return to alcohol or drug use. If you spend too much time missing the ‘good old days’ though, your brain will once again be in a state of cognitive dissonance. One way to resolve this dissonance is to adopt a new belief such as, ‘my life is better now, so I will be better able to control my alcohol or drug use’.

How to Deal More Effectively with Cognitive Dissonance

• Practice mindfulness so you can begin to clearly see how your brain tricks you
• Spend time around other people who are capable of challenging your faulty rationalisations (e.g. group therapy sessions or time with a therapist)
• Use tools from cognitive behavioural therapy to uncover any beliefs or ideas that are a source of suffering