Cognitive Dissonance and Ironic Process Theory: An Insidious Partnership

Brain

I wanted to dedicate my first post in this blog to two psychological phenomenon that function and guide our way of thinking at its most fundamental standing: cognitive dissonance and ironic process theory. Both of which shape our daily lives to varying degrees. For those of you who are not familiar with cognitive dissonance it is a motivational process that works to reduce anxiety between two competing ideas and in doing so create a new one. For ironic process theory, it is a theory of mental control that inquires about the affects of thought suppression, an activity frequently associated with patients of OCD, an its ability to render suppressed thoughts more persistent. In other words, when you suppress a respective thought, that action of suppression gives that thought in turn more power.

Cognitive Dissonance

When we inquire something like cognitive dissonance, we must also take into consideration the fact that such a process controls our daily actions. As Dr. John Grohol speaks of this process’s major impact in our lives:

Dissonance theory suggests that if individuals act in ways that contradict their beliefs, then they typically will change their beliefs to align with their actions“[1]

When looking into the affects anxiety produces, it is important to look into the mechanisms the human produces in order to live a consistent life. Since one of the important inclinations is for us is to experience consistency, part of what grounds that very consistency is the purpose of the process of cognitive dissonance. It also is not a process that requires much awareness: we use this process so frequently in our social lives that it operates in a subconscious manner, and is conditioned early on as a result.

In one sense it is useful to us. As I mentioned before, it creates consistency in our behavior, and when we have consistency our self-esteem remains untarnished and anxiety is kept at bay. Another benefit to this is that it creates organization in our beliefs, including our belief about ourselves; what we believe about ourselves. Certainty and the certainty about ourselves.

In another sense it works against us. A way cognitive cogntive dissonance works against us is we can be fooled into things believing falsely. A lot of the times we like to believe positive aspects of the world we live in that are less abrasive or harming to ourselves. We are attracted to beliefs that we appraise as positive and that are affirming to the structure of belief we already hold. Also,as I mentioned in the beginning, another avenue cogntive dissonance can take  the partnership it forms with ironic process theory. Which I will get to more later on

Ironic Process Theory

 

The peculiar aspect of ironic process theory is the fact that it involves our intentions. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner, the first to study the phenomenon, wrote in 1994:

A theory of ironic processes of mental control is proposed to account the intentional and counterintentional effects that result that results from efforts of self-control“[2]

This process also has a similar characteristic that is involved in its function; and that is anxiety. Anxiety, too, like in cognitive dissonance, has an active role in the working of this ironic process. However, there two ways in which the ironic process theory reaches the intended state of the individual, Dr Wegner goes further;

“(a) an operating process that promotes the intended change by searching for mental contents consistent with the intended state

(b) a monitoring process that tests whether the operating process is needed by searching for mental contents inconsistent with the intended state”[3]

So then it works both as an operating process and a monitoring process in order to achieve the intended state. For those of you who need a clarification on what Dr Wegner meant by “intended state”, it is simply the way you want to present yourself to yourself; a self-bias; a preferred self-schema if you will. Your intent regarding your state of being. It achieves this through the mentioned monitoring and operating processes that are at work. Nevertheless, the problem comes with “counterintentional” effects. Most of the time we like to have control over our thoughts, feelings, and desires, but through such an effort we do experience an amount of slip-ups, or what Wegner saw as cognitive overloads. Sometimes the monitoring processes fail to filter all the contents in our mental activity that are inconsistent with our intended states. A clear example is with insomniacs and his intended state of being of  attempting to sleep; when sufferers worry about going to sleep, in the act of worrying they are kept awake, or when an individual who is in a diet, who’s intended state is to eat healthy, thinks and worries excessively about the restricted foods in their diets, the desire for that food grows that much stronger. Ultimately causing his/her dietary goal to capsize under such pressures.

In considering such a mental workload involved with this process, it is conceivable why there may be such errors in our behavior. Dr Wegner observed that we may think, feel, and desire the wrong thing much more than we actually do it.

The question then becomes: when is the tipping point for ironic process theory of control? Mental capacity comes to mind when considering cognitive overload. That is how much we can handle mentally. Surely context and environmental factors play an important role: stress, distraction, time and so on. Part of our psychological life is principled on mental control, but when the threshold is crossed so to the bounds that we are able to control.

Unlike cognitive dissonance, this process requires a little effort on your part. Internal supervision(monitoring process) that you most actively engage in everyday is partly held accountable for this process. At any rate, there are said environmental requirements that can prove this task troublesome, and so there is no guarantee that the intended state will be promised. Consequently we give way to our conflicting natures every now and then, and understandably so.

The Un-dynamic Duo

The problem comes, I think, when these to process work with each other to your disadvantage. In considering how cognitive dissonance and ironic process actually works there is a perceived relationship that can be noticed: while cognitive dissonance works to produce consistency and certainly in our behavior, actions, and self-perception, ironic process theory of control states that the more you try to suppress or control negative or conflicting thoughts the more they are prevalent in strength. As a result, the more likely the processes of the ironic process theory of control will violate the security that cognitive dissonance gives us in our behavior, actions, and self-perception.

The self-sabotaging nature of this relationship is that these two mechanisms support each other and keep themselves active; the stronger the thoughts, feelings, desires, the more concentration or worry we give them, therefore the more active the workings of cognitive dissonance will be. The clear example of the insomniac; the main precursor of insomnia is high levels of anxiety and stress. When we are under anxiety and stress we tend to think excessively. So when the insomniac worries about his sleeplessness, he thinks excessively about not getting sleep, and because of that he does not get any sleep. The thought he tries to suppress or avoid becomes what keeps him at his sleeplessness and consequently he is sleepless. When an in an environment, such as a religious structure as another example, that abstains vehemently from what it calls thoughts of lust or premarital sexual relations, such persistent urges as the sex instinct can cause the sexual instinct to become more pronounced. Not only because such an institution advises strictly to refrain and and not take part in such activity and thoughts, but because it is advised that we do not occupy ourselves with engaging in that behavior from both our religious life and socio-cultural life because of the consequences or punishment that most likely follows these acts. And so we are inspired to fight-off these thoughts in every second of our lives–at the cost of both these mechanisms working against us. We see cases appearing of pedophilia amongst the roman catholic priests for whom which sexual life and sexual intercourse is forbidden under the restrictions of abstinence before becoming a priest and celibacy in being a priest. As a result of ironic process theory and cognitive dissonance working together, I think, they break the oath of silence from living in such puritanical institutions and prohibitory ideology as long as they have.

In looking into this, the two ingredients seem to be the suppression and an anxiety levels. Depending on the anxiety levels of the person, the less affected he is by the partnership of these two processes. If one has low anxiety levels the more cognitive capacity he will have, the more cognitive capacity he has the less likely he will experience something like the ironic process theory; and if he does not have the ironic process theory working against him, the less havoc will be faced by the process of cognitive dissonance.

Conclusion

So this is not a relationship negatively affecting every single individual. It seems the amount of negativity experienced from this relationship is proportional to the level of anxiety is being experienced  However, I think this relationship could shed some light on the workings of sexual deviance and it’s etiology in levels of anxiety and the environment. A lot of the times we think we have full control over behavior but we seem to overlook critical aspects in the environment that contribute to how we feel and the way we act normally. It should be expected that a lot of the pressures and stress we get from our socio-cultural and industrial life are not always in accordance with how we think, feel, or desire, and when we are at our tipping point, we attempt to store the skeletons in our closets until they come falling out for the everyone to see. It is of paramount importance that we see what we are actively and inactively feeling, desiring, and thinking in the depths of our inner life. I believe we can have more control over these processes and mechanisms if we at least know these type of things are going on. Even more importantly when things such as reputation, work life, religious life, and self-perception are at stake.

References:

1.  Grohol, M. J. (2008, October 19). Figthing Cognitive Dissonance & The Lie We Tell Ourselves. PsychCentral. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2008/10/19/fighting-cognitive-dissonance-the-lies-we-tell-ourselves/

2.  Wegner, M. D. (1994). Ironic Processes of Mental Control. Psychological Review, Vol. 101, No.1, 34-52. Retrieved from http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~wegner/pdfs/Wegner%20Ironic%20Processes%201994.pdf

3. Wegner pg. 34

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