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Teaching, Cognitive Dissonance and Cognitive Distortion

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Have you ever heard of cognitive dissonance? For me it is one of those terms that I had a general idea of what it could mean, but I wasn’t exactly certain. But a friend of mine was recently telling me about some therapy that he was going through and the therapist talked about cognitive dissonance and cognitive distortion.

To paraphrase Dr. Theodore Gideonse, cognitive dissonance is, “The opposite of harmony… it is the feeling of discomfort you get when you do something and it doesn’t make sense within the context of the way you think about yourself. Something that is negative about your positive experience.” So an example of that might be drinking coffee, someone might tell you coffee is bad for you, but, you drink coffee and you have had nothing but a positive experience. Furthermore, you can’t imagine your life without coffee and so being told that it is bad for you creates a physical discomfort.

According to Wikipedia: “In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; or participates in an action that goes against one of these three, and experiences psychological stress because of that. According to this theory, when two actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other, people do all in their power to change them until they become consistent. The discomfort is triggered by the person’s belief clashing with new information perceived, wherein they try to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce their discomfort.”

“In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), Leon Festinger proposed that human beings strive for internal psychological consistency to function mentally in the real world. A person who experiences internal inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable and is motivated to reduce the cognitive dissonance. They tend to make changes to justify the stressful behavior, either by adding new parts to the cognition causing the psychological dissonance or by avoiding circumstances and contradictory information likely to increase the magnitude of the cognitive dissonance.”

Coping with the nuances of contradictory ideas or experiences is mentally stressful. It requires energy and effort to sit with those seemingly opposite things that all seem true. Festinger argued that some people would inevitably resolve dissonance by blindly believing whatever they wanted to believe.

Cognitive Dissonance and the Classroom

Why is this important for teachers to understand cognitive dissonance? As a teacher your students are looking to you to teach them about the world around them. As educators, our role is to help students navigate the world we live in and to be able to function as productive members of society. It is also our job to enrich their lives with knowledge, to open their mind to possibility and hopefully put them on a course to not just function well, but to grow and improve the world.

However, students may experience cognitive dissonance around a particular subject and so instead of working on the subject, they have shut down and compartmentalized something that causes them discomfort. In American culture it is often easier to avoid discomfort than to work through it. So telling a student that they must complete specific courses in order to be successful may literally cause them physical discomfort. There is suddenly this internal struggle and a lack of harmony.  According to Leon Festinger, a researcher in cognitive dissonance, humans want things internally to be harmonious.

Today, we have information at our fingertips 24/7, it is important to teach students to be critical thinkers, to teach truth, but also to help students understand that the world we live in is in a state of flux. New information can shed light on what was once believed to be true, but in time was proved to be false. An example of that would be the idea that the earth is flat. There are still some people who believe that, but we have tools and information that inform us very clearly that the earth is indeed round.

What is Cognitive Distortion?

“Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.” (

So where do cognitive distortions come from? Often time congnitive distortions are messages that we take on from others or our experiences. If we are labeled enough by someone, we may begin to believe that statement is true about ourselves. You may believe that you are lazy because you don’t work 60 hours a week if your parents worked 60 hours a week.

Global Labeling or Mislabeling

One common distortion is referred to as “Global Labeling” or “Mislabeling”.

“In global labeling (also referred to as mislabeling), a person generalizes one or two qualities into a negative global judgment about themselves or another person. This is an extreme form of overgeneralizing. Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy universal label to themselves or others.

For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” in a situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way — without bothering to understand any context around why — they may attach an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “She abandons her children to strangers.””

Understanding cognitive distortions can help you better understand why a student might not be doing well in your class. A student might have had a negative experience in math, or chemistry, and has therefore labeled themselves as “not good at math” or “not good at chemistry.” This could be nothing more than a cognitive distortion and is also a type of thinking called “All or Nothing Thinking.” This is the idea that if you aren’t 100% successful at something, that you are a complete failure. The video below explains a little more about All or Nothing Thinking.

Understanding Behavior in the Classroom

It can be easy to look at someone and make assumptions about them based on their appearance or the way that they act. I know that personally I have seen someone and thought, “How can they not be happy, they have everything.” Or I see a someone and think, “Why are they so shy?” Because of the way I view the world, sometimes I make assumptions about how others interact with the world. By understanding personality differences, different teaching styles, and even human psychology, we can start to see people as individuals and make less generalizations. Knowing that not all students are visual learners can help us diversify our teaching styles and become more well-rounded educators. To assume that a student is non-motivated or not able to keep up, may have more to do with a cognitive distortion than an inability to learn.

Cognitive Dissonance and Cognitive Distortion

Cognitive Dissonance

So in a nutshell, cognitive dissonance is when you feel that something is out of harmony or out of sync with what you believe or experienced. Cognitive dissonance causes individuals to feel physical discomfort even though they are dealing with a psychological problem.

“Cognitive dissonance causes feelings of unease and tension, and people attempt to relieve this discomfort in different ways. Examples include “explaining things away” or rejecting new information that conflicts with their existing beliefs.” – Medical News Today

Cognitive Distortions

“Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true.” –

By becoming aware of the root cause of a problem, we can better understand it and work to resolve the issue(s). There are ways to undo incorrect thinking, it takes work, but it is possible. Check out this article for 10 ways to undo negative thinking patterns due to cognitive distortion. I have included the first step below which is key for solving just about any problem in life, first you have to identify it.

1. Identify the Cognitive Distortion

The most important step of fixing any problem in your life is identifying exactly what the problem is and how extensive it is in your life. An auto mechanic starts with a diagnostic assessment of your car when it has a problem.

In this same manner, you need to identify and track the cognitive distortions in your daily thinking first, before you start working to change them. You do this by creating a list of the troublesome thoughts throughout the day, as you’re having them. This will allow you to examine them later for matches with a list of cognitive distortions.

An examination of your cognitive distortions allows you to see which distortions that you prefer. Additionally, this process allows you to think about each problem or predicament in a more natural or realistic manner. David Burns called this exercise keeping a daily mood log, but nowadays you can use an app or anything that’s convenient to record your cognitive distortions. –

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