Spiritual Implications of Cognitive Dissonance

Psychological Process

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.