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Cognitive dissonance is the feeling you get when two beliefs collide in your head – the feeling of disagreeing with yourself. This commonly occurs when you see yourself doing something (or not doing something) despite knowing that the “right” thing to do is something else. Other times it’s more like a stalemate – you can’t take any action because you feel pulled in opposing directions.
Let’s talk about the difference between rational beliefs and emotional beliefs, to help you understand why you can rationally believe in something and yet not act according to that belief.
Just take a moment to notice how often you believe in something and then act against that belief. For example, you might believe it’s good to be healthy and yet you binge on chocolate. You might believe you really want a good career and yet you stay at your shitty job. You might believe that you should have high standards in a relationship and only be with someone who’s a good fit for you and yet you avoid approaching someone you’re attracted to.
Just notice that cognitive dissonance – that difference between what you think you believe and how you actually behave.
Triune brain theory
To introduce this topic, we’re going to talk a little bit about MacLeans’s Triune Brain Theory.
In simple terms, this is a theory that you don’t actually have one brain, you have three that are all joined but also able to function independently. Take a moment to process that… there isn’t just one “you” in that head of yours, there’s at least three!
There’s the reptilian brain (the brain stem) right at the back. It’s the same brain that we share with crocodiles and other reptiles. It really only cares about fucking and eating. It just wants you to survive and procreate. It doesn’t care about anything else.
The next level of the brain, the mammalian brain (the limbic system), is the same part of the brain that we share with dogs and lions and birds. It’s the part of the brain that cares about community, emotions, and connections with other people. It’s the social and emotional part of the brain.
And thirdly, we have the neomammilian brain or prefontal lobes (the neocortex), the “human” part of the brain, where we engage in planning, decision making, creativity, looking into the future, problem-solving, and rationality. It’s what we share with only a few other animals: primates, a couple of birds, orcas etc. This is a part of the brain that most other animals do not have, or doesn’t function in the same way as us. It creates rational beliefs.
It’s important to just notice what each part of the brain wants because they don’t always agree with each other.
The reptile just wants to survive and is uninterested in anything beyond that. It feels threatened by anything that threatens survival and wants to shy away from anything dangerous or uncomfortable.
The mammal part of the brain just wants to be loved and to feel good. It’s the same part of the brain that doesn’t function very well for psychopaths (that’s why they don’t care about people). This part of the brain is more interested in being popular than being honest or doing the right thing. It cares about what people think and it cares about how you feel – it wants you to feel good all the time. Anything that causes it to feel bad or abandoned or rejected makes it panic, and it tries to correct that even if it’s good for you in the long term (e.g. hesitating to break up with someone).
The human part of the brain is mostly interested in your long term future. It’s interested in planning and doing things right, like an engineer. It’s also the very creative part of the brain – it designs great works of art and pieces of music. It can think long-term and project and put cause-and-effect patterns together.
The human part of the brain is often getting into an argument with the other two parts. Contradictions, hypocrisy, cognitive dissonance – all those times where what you think doesn’t line up with what you do, or when you believe two things that conflict with each other. This conflict is essentially these parts of the brain arguing with each other.
Who’s the shot-caller?
The important thing to understand, according to the latest in neuroscience, is that the limbic system – the emotional part of the brain – has the most control over decision making.
This is why you can believe something rationally but if you don’t feel it, you often can’t act on it. A great example for this: you might rationally know that it’s not dangerous to go and talk to a stranger – they’re not going to kill you – and yet, if I was to take you out on the street and say “Go talk to that stranger,” you’ll probably have a panic attack. Rationally, you know that it’s safe, but emotionally, you don’t know that. You don’t feel it and therefore cannot act on it.
Quite often, we beat ourselves up for these contradictions.
Why haven’t I started my business yet? Why do I keep eating chocolate, even though I’m trying to get fit? Why do I put up with this terrible marriage?
We punish ourselves for this kind of “lack of discipline,” this inability that we seem to have to follow through on what we know we should do. But if you understand that the human part of the brain that knows what’s best for you, in the long run, is just an advisor and not a decision-maker, then you’ll see that your behavior makes a lot more sense. The mammal is calling the shots.
Conflicts like this tell you that while you might fully believe something rationally, you’re still not yet convinced emotionally. And so that final veto, that final decision in the committee, comes down to the mammal (who’s also advised strongly by an extremely lazy and cautious reptile). And if the mammal doesn’t feel good about doing it, then you’re probably not going to do it.
If the mammal is not convinced that there’s going to be good feelings and good connections, and the reptile is not convinced that you’re going to survive and thrive from this, then you won’t do it. This isn’t a willpower issue – it’s a committee decision-making issue, most of which is subconscious.
This gives you some insight around what needs to change with your decision-making process, to allow you to do those things that are good for you in the long term but don’t feel very good to do right now.
Dealing with the Reptile
First, you need to keep the reptile happy. You need to set up resources, backup plans, and safety measures, to ensure that this is not going to harm you physically and that it’s not going to ruin your chances for survival. A lot of people ask a great risk from themselves without first setting up some safety parameters, and then they wonder why they can’t do it.
If, for example, you’re going to go to the gym, make sure that you give yourself permission to quit doing any exercises that hurt too much, to only do the kind of exercises where you’ve got the technique right and you’re not going to get injured. Make sure you’ve got a plan and the right training.
Another example might be you want to confront your boss. Your reptile brain is worried about you losing your job and therefore losing your resources. Before you confront your boss, update your resume, get a few cover letters ready, get ready to apply for a new job so you can keep your resources going. Check out your contract and HR guidelines to know what risks you’re taking and how to manage them.
Or if you want to travel around the world or start your own business, save up about three months worth of emergency money before you go, just so the reptile knows that if things go to shit you won’t die immediately.
However, don’t wait to feel completely safe. This need for total safety is a trick that the reptile plays on you.
That’s why crocodiles lie in the sun all day. They’ve got no interest in taking any risks beyond what’s needed to get fed and get fucked. So when you’re about 80% ready is enough. And that’s about as much as you’re ever going to be. That’s enough to satisfy the reptile but will still feel a little bit dangerous. It’s enough to get going with relative safety.
Dealing with the mammal
Secondly, and most importantly, the mammal needs to be satisfied that this is worth doing. That comes down to two separate things. One, it has to be somewhat emotionally enjoyable to do this and two, it cannot be too socially risky.
For example, say you wanted to practice being more honest. Being yourself a very uncomfortable thing to do. So first, do it with people that you don’t know and make it a game. This way you’re protecting your current social circle and your reputation, and you’re trying to make it fun. You could try doing silly bold things in a public place, but travel to a town that you don’t usually go to.
Again, if you’re going to the gym and you find that particularly difficult to do – maybe you’re embarrassed about doing in front of other people or you find the exercises emotionally uncomfortable – maybe go with a friend, so at least one person there is emotionally comfortable for you. And only do the exercises that you actually feel like doing when you’re there – the fun ones. It’s a lot better than not going at all, and eventually you can wean yourself off these crutches by building up confidence through experience.
Let’s say you want to do something bold and socially risky, like asking someone out on a date. Make sure you’ve got a recovery plan afterward. Make sure the mammal knows that if this gets too much, you’ll back out and you’ll do something nice for yourself – you’ll go read a nice book by the fire while you go hang out with your friends.
One example for me is when I used to go to a bar or a nightclub and I’d go meet strangers. AfterI got shut down or I crashed and burned I’d go back to my table with my friends and just hang out with them for like half an hour before I went and spoke to the next stranger. I had this oasis of social and emotional comfort that I could keep going back to. My brain knew that if things got too rough, I would just take myself back there to recover. This gave me the courage to branch out a little bit.
It’s just animals arguing
What’s important is to understand that whenever you see yourself being a hypocrite or being contradictory with your behavior – where you’re not doing what you said you’re going to do and you’re not living by the rules you think you should be living by and you’re not being rational with your behavior – this doesn’t mean you’re lazy or stupid or weak. It means the parts of your brain are in conflict, and that conflict needs to be resolved.
Usually, it just needs to be made a little bit safer, a little bit less socially risky, a little bit more emotionally comfortable, and then you’ll do it. You don’t have to swing for the fence with every action you take. All animals can handle a little bit of discomfort, so just find that level and do it only to that level (for now).
Over time your brain will start to trust you more (i.e. the animals will start to trust the human’s advice). The way I imagine it is the human part of my brain is essentially training the animals by showing them what to do in small manageable doses. He listens to them and makes sure they don’t get hurt, while pushing them to extend their boundaries and enjoy doing it along the way.
Thank you for watching/reading, I hope you enjoyed it. Please comment below with your thoughts and share it around if you like it.
And of course, if you want help developing that communication with the committee in your brain so that it helps your long term interests, get in touch email@example.com and I’ll give you some tips and techniques on how to live by your values in a way that brings cohesion to these three parts of the brain.
MacLean, P. D. (1977). The triune brain in conflict. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 28(1-4), 207-220.