Cognitive Dissonance and Mindful Eating
I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It looks at many areas where cognitive dissonance encourages us to justify our decisions and actions, including law enforcement, politics, marriage, and family rifts.
But it also got me thinking about how cognitive dissonance plays a role in our eating patterns.
What is cognitive dissonance?
The authors describe cognitive dissonance as: “a state of tension that occurs when a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent with each other, such as ‘Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me’ and ‘I smoke two packs a day.’” (p. 17)
To ease the discomfort that comes with this dissonance, people can either change their behavior (ex. quit smoking) or find a way to justify it (ex. smoking is okay because it helps people relax).
Furthermore, once you start justifying decisions this way, you keep going, even when things get rough. In fact, the tougher it is, the more likely you are to stick to your goal or approach, and you’ll be happier when you get it. As the authors said, “If a person voluntarily goes through a difficult or painful experience in order to attainsome goal or object, that goal or object becomes more attractive.” (p. 23)
Dieting and self-justification
When I read the quote about more difficult goals becoming more attractive, I immediately thought about dieting.
After all, dieting isn’t easy, at least for most of us. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many support groups for it or so many different types of diets. Some of the more extreme diets now are exceptionally difficult, such as eating only raw foods. But any kind of diet restricts what you eat, limits your social interactions, and requires extra care in food preparation.
And for most people, the goal of dieting is weight loss. At the same time, diets don’t work for weight loss, and in fact, you may end up weighing more after a diet than before.
But still, odds are good that you continue dieting. Why?
Based on what I’ve read, in this scenario, the dissonance comes from these two thoughts: “I went on this diet to lose weight” and “I ended up gaining weight after dieting.”
Quitting diets seems like an obvious choice, but on the other hand, you’ve already put a lot of time and effort into dieting. You’ve weighed, measured, counted, and tracked. You’ve eaten the “allowed” foods and had an occasional “cheat day.” You’ve proudly told friends and family about your diet.
In short, you’ve got a lot invested.
Plus, because of all the effort and difficulty, even though you haven’t reached your goal, you might be even more focused on losing weight than you were beforehand. You need to prove to yourself that everything you did matter, that it was for a reason.
If you quit dieting, or say that it failed, then it’s admitting that you made a mistake in doing the diet. It also means giving up on your goal.
So instead, you tell yourself, “I gained weight because I failed on the diet.” Or maybe, “I should try a different diet.”
Either way, your belief that diets are the answer hasn’t changed. It might have even gotten stronger. That’s why you decide to give the diet another try, or try a slightly different diet, because you’re still invested in the goal and you feel like you can’t give up now, not after everything you’ve already done.
Resolving dissonance with mindful eating
The good news is, there’s a third way to resolve the dissonance. Change your focus to eating mindfully.
Instead of saying that you failed, or that the diet failed, you could reframe your approach to be: “I’m not focusing on losing weight – my goal is to eat more mindfully so I’m not as food-obsessed.”
Of course, you might ask, won’t that also create dissonance if you don’t eat more mindfully? And yes, that could happen, but it’s less likely, and even when it comes up, it’s much easier to resolve the dissonance because mindful eating isn’t about being perfect.
Unlike a diet, you’re not being told what good or bad foods are. You can eat the pint of Ben & Jerry’s, or a huge head of broccoli, in one sitting if you want.
You might also realize partway through a meal, or after you’ve finished eating, that you weren’t being mindful while eating. Or that you started eating because you were bored or stressed or lonely, not because you were hungry. If you were still following diet mentality, that would mean you “failed” and you’d be tempted to beat yourself up.
But with mindful eating, that’s not a failure. It’s a chance to better understand what happened so that next time, you can approach things differently. Or it might be the time after that.
This means that any dissonance is easily resolved. You might have two thoughts such as, “I’m eating more mindfully” and “I just ate all the cookies mindlessly.”
That feels dissonant, but the very fact that you noticed your mindless eating means that you’re becoming mindful. You might be paying attention later than you’d hoped, but still, you noticed it, and that leads back to mindful eating. In this case, you could resolve the dissonance by saying, “I just ate all the cookies mindlessly, but now that I’ve noticed this, I’ll see what I can learn to help me be more mindful moving forward.”
In short, when you’re focused on mindful eating, it’s much harder to get stuck in a place of dissonance because it’s not about absolutes.
Mindful eating helps get away from cognitive dissonance
It’s very easy to feel some dissonance around how you want to eat and how you actually eat, especially if you’re in a diet mentality where everything is black and white.
With mindful eating, though, it’s much easier to avoid cognitive dissonance, or to resolve it when it happens, as long as you remember that this is a journey. No one is perfect, and no one eats mindfully all the time. The goal is simply to be as mindful as you can and to recognize when you’re not.