People are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27); therefore, integrity is inherent. However, we live in a fallen world (Gen. 3:14-19, Rom. 5:12) and do not always live up to our ideals (Rom. 7:15-25). When this happens, we experience cognitive dissonance, i.e., the psychological distress we experience when we violate our conscience. Breslavs (2013) defines our conscience as "an inner component of personality that acts as judge and critic of one's own and others' actions according to one's values" (p.66).
Our sense of self is threatened when our cognitions and behaviors oppose our values. "When actions, beliefs, and attitudes clash, it leaves one grappling with how to regain equilibrium and restore one's self-image" (Startz, 2019). According to Polage's studies, people who have a rigid set of standards, e.g., Christians who believe in objective truth, suffer more significant cognitive dissonance and go to more extraordinary lengths to resolve the inner turmoil it creates (2017).
To reduce dissonance, one can change behavior (repent) or justify it (self-deception). Justification can occur by changing existing cognitions or adding new ones (Aronson et al., 2016). When we choose repentance, our relationship with God, and often with others, is set right. When we select self-deception, we double down on our sin and exchange the truth for a lie.
Because we strive to restore harmony between our thoughts, actions, and values, we often revise memories to support our position (Polage, 2017). In other words, we remember events in a manner that promotes our new narrative, not as they actually were.
Another way to restore harmony is to revise our belief system. "Did God really say..." Sound familiar? Just as Eve was deceived by Satan's twisting of God's Word and calling into question His character, we deceive ourselves when we twist Scripture to support our desires rather than search it to learn God's desires for us.
In most cases, it is an insidious process that slowly erodes relationships, drawing us away from God and others. It is the seed that takes root in the heart of the backsliding Christian (Pro. 14:14). It is how we successfully make provision for the flesh (Rom. 13:14). "...cognitive dissonance engulfs one whose spirit has been renewed but whose mind is still carnal, generating the double-mindedness that leads to self-deception (Jam. 1:22)" (Startz, 2019).
Let's face it. What we are talking about here is more than simply violating our conscience. It is sin. For the Christian, our conscience is shaped by God; therefore, when we violate it, we have sinned. The universal solution to sin is repentance, offering praise to Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins because He paid the debt we owe.
How do you help a loved one who manages their cognitive dissonance by revising history and altering their belief system? Gentle restoration - covered in prayer and done with complete humility (Gal. 6:1). Now is not the time for "brutal honesty." Aggressively pushing truth on someone in this state will not only be rejected; it will cause further harm.
Polage's (2017) research demonstrated that giving voice to lies (the revised version of events or belief system) actually increases the motivation for the person to believe the lies. In other words, in defending their position against an aggressive truth-teller, they become more deeply entrenched in their self-deception.
Keep in mind you are attempting to dismantle a psychological defense mechanism that is quite adept at reducing pain. Cognitive dissonance can result when someone sins against you, e.g., domestic violence, parental alienation, and all forms of abuse toward children from a respected figure (family, a friend of the family, a person in authority – coach, teacher, pastor). It also results from following desires of the flesh rather than subjugating them to the Spirit, e.g., affairs and addictions.
Since this defense mechanism works so well, they will not let go of it easily. The process will require every fruit the Spirit has given you: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Rather than directly challenging their revised belief system and/or memory of events, ask clarifying questions. Listen attentively, with the goal being to understand, not to reply or win an argument. Respond gently and with respect. Carefully choose which hill you're willing to die on. Restoration of this sort is a lengthy process.
Angela W. Startz, MAHSC, CCLC
Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., Akert, R. M., & Sommers, S. R. (2016). Social psychology, (9th ed.). (n.p.): Pearson Education.
Breslavs, G. M. (2013). Moral emotions, conscience, and cognitive dissonance. Psychology in Russia: State of the Art, 6(4). 65-72.
Polage, D. (2017). The effect of telling lies on belief in the truth. Europe's Journal of Psychology, 13(4), 633-644.
Salti, M., El Karoui, I., Maillet, M., & Naccache, L. (2014). Cognitive dissonance resolution is related to episodic memory. PLoS One, 9(9), e108579.
Startz, A. W. (2019). Cognitive Dissonance. Unpublished manuscript. Liberty University.