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The Relationship between Cognitive Dissonance and Addiction


Addiction as Justifying the Unjustifiable

It can be difficult for those people who have never developed alcohol or drug addiction to understand the motivations and reasoning of those who have. It can just be so obvious to these other people that the substance abuse is causing problems, and that the individual engaging in it needs to end the behaviour. The reason for why the person is able to persist with their drug use is that they just do not see things in the same way. This is because they have found a way to justify the unjustifiable and one of the ways that they are able to do this is by cognitive dissonance.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Humans will have many beliefs and opinions about things. These ideas will shape how they perceive and judge the world, and it would not be possible to live without them and still be able to function. Sometimes the individual can hold beliefs and opinions that are contradictory or that contradicts their behaviour. For example, a person may believe that drinking too much alcohol is bad, but they still continue to indulge in this behaviour. This internal conflict between what they believe and what they do leads to cognitive dissonance, and this will lead to mental discomfort. The individual has to find a way to resolve this contradiction, and there are three strategies that they can use to do this.

  • The individual can change their behaviour so that it fits in with their thinking. In the case of the problem drinker they would be able to quit drinking or limit their intake. This option is often not available for those people who have developed a physical or psychological dependence on alcohol.
  • Another way that the person could deal with the cognitive dissonance is to change the way they think so that it fits in more closely with their behaviour. Here the problem drinker would come to the conclusion that their behaviour isn’t actually that dangerous, and that their former fears were just mistaken. This is a common strategy used by addicts.
  • The individual can also resolve the cognitive dissonance by adapting a new idea that resolves the conflict between the two opposing ideas. This is another strategy that is commonly used by addicts. In the case of our example, the problem drinker might accept that drinking too much alcohol is dangerous, but they adopt the extra idea that they are a special case. For example, the person might believe that they have a particularly strong constitution that will allow them to withstand the destruction of substance abuse.

One of the best examples of cognitive dissonance can be found in the Aesop Tale of the Fox and the Grapes. One day a fox is strolling through a forest and he notices some delicious looking grapes. He then realises that these grapes are up too high for him to be able to reach. The fox has the inner conflict of wanting the grapes but not being able to get to them. This internal conflict is resolved when the fox decides that the grapes do not look delicious after all. In fact the animal decides that they are rotten and is able to happily go along its way without any sense that it lost out on anything.

Cognitive Dissonance and Addiction Excuses

Cognitive dissonance means that the individual will be able to accept many justifications to explain their behaviour and explain away concerns about their substance abuse. Some of these excuses will include:

  • They will believe that the real problem is those who do not use alcohol or drugs. The argument here will be that these individuals are not only boring, but that they also want to prevent other people from having fun.
  • The belief that all the talk about the dangers of substance abuse is just a way for people in the recovery community to make money. The individual may believe that addiction is a made up problem that has no real basis in reality. The reason that people believe that they are addicted is that they have been brainwashed by propaganda.
  • The belief that when people give up alcohol or drugs they are doomed to a life that is boring and predictable. The individual may equate recovery as being the same as a self imposed prison sentence with no chance of remission.
  • The individual may be convinced that even if alcohol or drugs is making their life miserable now that the good times will soon return.

Dangers of Cognitive Dissonance for Substance Abusers

Cognitive dissonance can be lethal for substance abusers because it can keep them trapped in their denial about the problem. The individual can keep finding ways to rationalise their behaviour no matter what arguments are given for why they should stop. Some of the dangers of cognitive dissonance would include:

  • The person will be 100% convinced that they are in the right. This means that it can be extremely difficult to reason with them.
  • The individual will be able to justify any poor decision that they make. They will always have somebody else to blame or put things down to bad luck.
  • It can prevent the individual from taking responslibity for their own life.
  • The individual may also hold all types of prejudices that they are able to hold onto using the same strategies.
  • It will often mean that the individual distrusts those people who are trying to help them.

How to Escape Cognitive Dissonance

It is vital that those individuals who are caught in addiction are able to break through their cognitive dissonance to see things as they really are. This can happen by:

  • Spending time with an addiction therapist can help the individual see the reality of their situation.
  • If the individual enters rehab they will have their thinking challenged, and they will usually be able to see through their denial.
  • Learning to think critically will also help the person understand their situation better.

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