What does it mean to believe something? How is it different to knowing something?
“What do I believe in?” A question I dance with regularly.
What do you believe in?
Is it the things that bubble up in our mind when we ask ourselves that question?
Today we’re going to dive into how to get from knowing we should do something to actually making it a part of our actions. A key part of this is the difference between “knowing” and truly “believing”.
To align us before we jump in, some temporary definitions.
- “Knowing”: Holding the information in your head.
- “Believing“: Accepting the information as truth.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s contextualise what we’re looking at.
Cognitive Dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.
Dissonance is deeply uncomfortable for people. We feel physical pain hearing dissonance in music, and we feel that pain when we are forced to confront cognitive dissonance.
This is chaos, and we prefer order. Order is certainty and certainty is safety.
It is acting in a way that contradicts what you think or at least what you think you think.
We are capable of holding multiple contradictory ideas in our head at the same time.
This is necessary to be able to evaluate multiple points of view, a great asset in good decision-making. Still, you need to resolve them to one outcome to avoid being inconsistent. Evaluate and decide.
Holding onto them both forever will mean you feel an unending tension.
This is most apparent when it comes to judging ourselves versus judging others.
The violation: Someone cuts you off on the road? How do you feel? They must be an idiot, how dare they, they almost caused an accident – the audacity of this moron!
The converse: You cut someone else off on the road? How do you feel? You had your reasons, you are sorry but you are running late for an important meeting, they’ll understand, you even did the hand-wavey thing.
What is the conclusion here? Is it okay to cut someone off on the road?
Thinking about this will probably get you stuck in a mental loop, going around and around. Doing gymnastics to reconcile these points-of-view.
You find it acceptable when you do it, and not when others do it, it’s a double standard. So while you would say you hate it when people cut other people off on the road you are guilty of doing it sometimes, and you are okay with that.
We’re looking once again at an example of the Fundamental Attribution Error.
A psychological phenomenon where we blame external factors for our failures (we judge our environments) and internal factors of others for their failures (we judge their character) .
Hiding in the Shadow of a doubt
This is just one example, cognitive dissonance is everywhere. It causes all sorts of hypocrisy and double standards.
It can survive because it lives in the shadows.
It lives where you are not looking.
You typically focus on one thing at a time, you can evaluate them independently of one another. Each one holds true by itself. It’s only when you consider them together that you see that you are contradicting yourself.
This is convenient and allows you to move forward in daily life without being completely morally consistent, which would be exhausting.
Context is obviously important, so dynamically making decisions is superior than having the same static heuristics for all different situations.
But when this ends up becoming two static heuristics that contradict each other you can get into trouble.
Lying to ourselves
- You tell people you hate people that cheat, but you are in denial about emotionally cheating with that colleague at work.
- You know smoking causes cancer but you still do it.
- You know that most products at the supermarket are the same despite the packaging but you still buy the “name brands” over generics even if they are twice as expensive.
In fact, the more you believe you are guilty, the more loudly you will be inclined to proclaim these things.
So when you look closely at cognitive dissonance, shining a light onto it in its hidey-hole, it scrambles, collapsing down to one outcome. Becoming a rationalisation to protect whatever you value most. See my exploration of value hierarchy here.
- “I wouldn’t cheat, I’m just being friendly because I’m a friendly person” (even though you’re only “friendly” with this one colleague).
- “I won’t get cancer, I’m very healthy, plus it helps me deal with stress, and stress is unhealthy. I can’t quit right now, I have to focus on getting that promotion first”.
- “I’ve always bought this one, I can’t put my finger on it, but it just tastes different” (even if it doesn’t).
The exact example doesn’t really matter, it can be easy to poke holes in individual instances because context is important.
There will be cases where this is not true, obviously – nothing is objectively true all the time. However, it is certainly worth considering because it is these ‘beliefs’ that are your ego defending itself from making a real change.
They are the barriers to your evolution.
What does this mean to us?
This is a simplified view at what it means to know something versus what it means to believe it.
I am proposing that when you believe something you live it.
People often proclaim things they “believe”.
If it was as simple as knowing something then we’d all be paragons of virtue.
You know that running every day would improve your health, you want to be healthier because you have a family history of heart disease, so why don’t you ever do it?
I’m not making a point to judge any one here. I’m guilty of this as anyone. Getting defensive is a standard first reaction. This is claiming you may not be who you think you are. And that is really fucking scary.
Simply gaining a recognition of how we can trick ourselves into inaction by proclaiming our virtue will give us a chance to fight back.
The more we proclaim our value to others the less we believe it ourselves, we think, “Hey this person is pretty smart and they believe I’m valuable, so I must be valuable”.
It’s outsourcing our self-esteem to others.
This works great as long as the vocal validation is constant.
You will be a leaky bucket, requiring others to constantly validate that you are who you think you are.
Requiring constant proclamations of virtue when you interact with others, because your actions will speak to the opposite and you must get out in front of that. To avoid “a misunderstanding”.
E.g. In my case: You spend 10 minutes lecturing someone at a party about the new healthy living regime you are on with your fifth Gin and Tonic in your hand and later that night you end up at 24 hours McDonalds at 2am.
We’re all human, we all make mistakes. It’s just about avoiding these proclamations.
These proclamations are often virtue signalling. We are attempting to gain status and convince others and ourselves that we are the manifestation of a valuable human.
Despite how imperfect or undesirable our actions tend to be.
Why do we dance this dance?
We want to matter, and to matter requires we are valuable.
From birth we’re told to be valuable, a story of protagonism, we’re the main character in our story. So we hide our bullshit, our flaws. This is something I will explore on its own next time.
This inconsistency – the manifestation of cognitive dissonance – will eat away at your insides until you come crumbling down due to a lack of structural integrity.
You will be weakened by this over time.
And in the end, without the mirror of others to tell you who you are: You won’t know who you are.
Have you ever lost of a close friend, confidant or family member from your life and had an identity crisis because you no longer know who you are?
If you want some change in your mentality, whether it is to be more disciplined in your exercising, or picking up that musical instrument, or learning to code, or another language, or calling your mother more often, there is a technique. It’s all the same.
If you want to create action: the pain of not doing must exceed the pain of doing, right now. The timeframe is important, we discount future benefits over immediate benefits all the time.
It’s a simple equation to get forward momentum. You need impetus now.
Raise. The. Stakes.
If you know you want to do something but find yourself not doing it you must turn that immediate “pain dial” up to 11.
When motivation strikes, it is fleeting, so while it lasts you create a system to enforce discipline after the motivation has dispersed. By creating painful feedback when you don’t do it.
Creating Discipline out of Motivation
Actionable: Create extrinsic frameworks based on what you know about yourself to FORCE yourself into action..
Personal Example: For me, it’s knowing that if someone is counting on me, I will do it. So when I wanted to begin waking up at 6am I created an accountability partner in my friends who expected me to be at the gym with them. Taking my people-pleasing nature and mobilising it to improve my life.
The first step is understanding your “momentum triggers”, what forces you to action?
- Is it your kids?
- Is it maintaining your public status?
- Is it what your friends think of you?
We can want to believe something but if the “momentum triggers” are not correct for us (because everyone is different) then you will not be driven to action.
The stakes need to be raised in the present, not in a far off future.
The most contentious example of this is the devout religious person who claims to believe in heaven and hell, but spends every weekend ‘sinning’.
Again, not a personal attack, but if you truly believed that there was heaven and hell and these sins would cause you to be tortured for all eternity in a fiery blaze, in extreme pain… forever… you would not be so flippant about it all.
This is the foundational point. When you TRULY believe something you will live it in your actions. Holding information in your head is not enough to force your behaviour.
When you believe it you fear the consequences and so your actions reflect your belief.
It is easy to say, it is hard to do. But we get much the same emotional validation from others – so why take the hard route?
The point here is not just to make you feel bad, we all want to be seen as virtuous. It is instead to say that if you align your honest beliefs to your actions you feel a liberation from the chains of incongruence.
Be honest with yourself. Be honest with others.
There will be no dissonance there.
And without it, there will only be calm.
Alignment in your true beliefs and your actions is the purest type of honesty.