Man unsure what to do next

So today the Government is due to announce face coverings being mandatory in shops from 24th July. It’s the latest in a long line of often confusing and contradictory advice the British public have been given on how to protect themselves. So I wanted to explore with you what happens when we encounter contradiction, uncertainty and instances when people say one thing and do another.

We should probably start by saying this experience has a name, we call it cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is where we encounter or hold contradictory beliefs, ideas or values or engage in an action that contradicts one of those deeply held beliefs, ideas or values. This experience causes us psychological stress.

What is fascinating, is how we cope with that stress, and what we do when the contradiction is pointed out to us (you may have seen this kind of thing played out in the news).

This kind of stress can cause us to fall into black and white thinking where it is, or it isn’t and things are never experienced as being on a spectrum, for instance, someone is right or wrong, they either have vaild points or they don’t rather than they may have some good points but others are vague.

Often when we think this way you find your self experiencing just one of the beliefs or ideas you hold being true and the other contradictory one is almost forgotten, then you switch. It’s as if your mind blanks one of the beliefs or ideas, to avoid experiencing the dissonance, and living with the contradiction.

You may find yourself researching and researching to find out what’s true. When you experience this you want certainty and become drawn to people with strong ideas who seem very sure of themselves, even if their ideas don’t hold water. This seeking of an authority to feel safe and to leave the decision to someone else can cause harm, as people who come across as very certain can have very extreme beliefs. Scientific reasearch, by contrast, tends to use probabilities and statistics which often give a more nuanced, or uncertain view. This is why at times like these we see a rise in conspiracy theorists, and people purporting to have the answer.


Lastly there is what we humans love to do the most, we tell stories and make jokes. Stories help us to reason why the contradiction exists, some of the most common ones are ‘There’s one rule for us, and one rule for them’, ‘They didn’t mean it’, ‘It was an accident’, ‘They only broke the rules because’. It’s a tactic we use often when someone says one thing and behaves in a contradictory way, we find a reason for this exception.

When we live with uncertainty about the advice we are given or what will happen next, we do the same. The story fills the gap ‘It’ll be alright because…’ or conversely ‘It’s really terrible anyway, what did we expect?’ The story brings comfort and instead of avoiding the cognitive dissonance it tries to explain it away.

We can also use stories to minimise the importance of the uncertainty or contradiction ‘Well it’s all rubbish anyway’, ‘It won’t matter in ten years time’. This strategy is used to reduce to psychological stress by making the belief, idea or value unimportant. So trivial it’s not surprising there is a contradiction.

To work through cognitive dissonance we need to start by acknowledging the contradictory beliefs, ideas or values whether in society or in ourselves, and look at why they exist. Is it like the Coronavirus pandemic where we don’t have enough information to be certain, and as we learn we need to implement what we believe to be the current best practice; Or is it hypocrisy where we or others are claiming to hold to one thing whilst doing the opposite?

Living with uncertainty and contradiction is part of being human and living in a society, sometime we have to accept there are things we just don’t know and that our strategies for dealing with it may or may not be helpful. Other times it may be important to call out the hypocrisy or to do something about it, like when you are in a relationship where someone says they love you but they ignore you, belittle you, gaslight you or hurt you.

If you’d like to discuss this further or need to talk with someone about your own conflicting feelings do get in touch.