Healthy Boundaries, Concepts & Cognitive Dissonance

Part III: The Dynamic Self-schema

“The motivating force behind the forming of shared illusions in a group is identical to
that in the self: to minimize anxiety.”
~ Daniel Goleman ~


In the first two parts, I covered two major blocks that may inhibit the identity change that you want to realize for yourself.
Our need for predictability and our tendency to explain how things have been up to now may limit goals and aspirations we set for ourselves. Self-change can be perceived as not possible or too difficult when we explain how we are now in terms of what happened in the past. I described how even a valuable resource like Social Sciences Research can be a filled with these types of self-limiting mind-sets and that we should only use Social Sciences Research to gather more understanding about the past, but not let it limit us in our dreams for the future.

In the second part, I wrote about two needs that exist inside of us, a need for a predictable safe haven (comfort zone) where we can rest and recover and a need for exploration (desire to venture with excitement into new, unknown territory).
These two needs are balanced in a healthy human being and facilitate the growth and development of an individual. Problems can occur when someone gets hurt in traumatic experiences (abuse) and is not able to process and complete these experiences (mostly due to a poor quality safe haven and poor social support by peers, parents or caretakers).
In this way, identity change will be inhibited because I walk around anxious (traumatized), weakened and often addicted (to short-term mood altering behaviours and/or substances).

In an emotionally wounded state, I act more predictable due to the state of negative emotionality I am in (most of the time). This makes it less likely that I take risks or attempt to make changes to how I am living my Life.
When completion of past hurt is realized, my need for exploration has been revived and I will be more excited to start making changes and design my Life the way I want it to be.

a Self with healthy boundaries

Like I stated in the previous Part, when I am wounded I will lack integrity (wholeness). Because of this, I seek something outside of myself to feel good. Also, I feel hurt by others more easily and I am more likely to fall victim to abuse by others or to become a perpetrator of abuse myself. When past hurts are processed and completed, integrity of the self is restored and I no longer seek outside myself to feel good, because I already feel great about myself just being alive. Also, my personal boundaries are strengthened and I find it much easier to defend myself when other people try to attack, offend or disrespect me in some way. Miguel Ruiz (2004) describes this as an ability of:
“saying no when you want to say no and saying yes when you want to say yes”, rather than just going along with the wishes of other people because you’re afraid of their disapproval.
Saying no and calling a halt to negative actions of others towards you is a sign of healthy self-esteem. I do not allow others to disrespect me or walk all over me. Having covered restored integrity, let’s examine the processes concerning identity and self-change.
For Part III, I will delve into the specifics of how the dynamic self-schema works.
I will start with some basic concepts in Social Psychology and then expand towards how self-change is possible.

Concepts and Schemas

Always, at any given time, we have one experience of Life.
In order to make sense of our world, we mentally cut up this experience into pieces and use concepts to refer to all the pieces (objects and features) in our experience.

“A concept is a mental representation of a category, that is,
a class of objects that we believe belong together.”

(Smith, 1990, as described in Kunda, 1999)

According to Kunda (1999), we classify what we perceive into concepts and this is a process that happens almost automatically (you don’t see a four-legged barking wool of hair and then consciously classify it mentally. No, you instantly see a dog). Furthermore, we use these concepts to infer additional traits, meanings and interpretations of what we perceive (we instantly get that a dog may be a pet and that if he is wagging his tail, it means he’s happy). We also use concepts to communicate with other people (talking about dogs) and to reason (doing some dog science). Additionally, we use concepts to build schemas, scripts, beliefs, stereotypes and theories.
A schema is a set of concepts that refers to a particular thing. The concept of dog only refers to that type of animal, whereas the schema of dog includes all concepts that may be associated with dog, like the concepts of barking, pet, mammal, etc.
Sometimes, our concepts and schemas may conflict with what we perceive in reality and when this happens we experience:

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a mental tension we experience whenever concepts, beliefs or attitudes we hold about reality are inconsistent with what we perceive in reality.
We experience this tension because our mental map of the world no longer corresponds with what we perceive in the outside world. In other words, it’s a shocker to what we expected to happen and it means our map of the world may not be accurate enough in predicting reality (there is that need for predictability we have again).
The phenomena of cognitive dissonance can arise in a wide variety of situations. To give the reader a better illustration of the phenomenon, I shall describe a couple instances of cognitive dissonance in action:

      • Let’s say that when I when was a child I was very sick one day. At that day, my mom decided to introduce a new dish to me for dinner. I was sick and vomited all of it out later. From then on, I decided that I didn’t like that dish and my mom never cooked it for me again. Then, 10 years later, I arrive at a friend’s house and he cooks me the same dish for dinner. Today, I’m feeling great, but inside I think back distastefully, looking at the dish my friend has prepared. Being polite, I decide to at least give the food a try. To my amazement, the dish tastes absolutely wonderful.
        Cognitive dissonance! Perceived reality is conflicting with my attitude towards the dish. I will likely change my attitude towards the dish to alleviate the dissonance.
      • Social Science experiment:
        Two groups of people participate in an experiment. Both are asked to prepare and do a 30-minute presentation on a boring subject for an audience. One group receives a large monetary reward afterwards, whereas the other group receives a small or no monetary reward. After the presentation, the second group (who received little or no reward) will have changed their attitudes towards the boring subject more than the first group who received a large monetary reward.
        The first group simply reasoned: “I’ve done this boring work (preparing and giving the presentation) in exchange for this money.”
        The second group did not have this incentive so they were stuck with a dilemma: The reality that they had invested time and energy in working on a presentation on a subject boring to them. To deal with the cognitive dissonance that arose from this dilemma they changed their attitudes towards the boring subject and stated things like: “I actually thought the subject was quite interesting and I enjoyed doing a presentation about it.”
        At the end of the experiment, the group that received a large monetary reward still found the subject boring, whereas the group that received little to no reward started liking the subject. The second group had to rationalize the fact that they invested time and energy into the boring activity and thus, started liking the subject. They changed their cognitions (attitude) to fit the fact that they had just invested time and energy on working on a boring task. In this way, they alleviated the cognitive dissonance that arose from working on a boring task (that wouldn’t normally engage in) without there being any reward or payoff in return.
    • When Hispanic ships first arrived at American shores, the natives couldn’t see the ships because they didn’t have any concepts for them. This would be akin to if you were to take an airplane and fly it around in front of a person from a couple centuries ago. The reality of it would simply not be a fit for the mental map that person would hold about the world and cognitive dissonance would arise.
    • Goal setting involves cognitive dissonance in the sense that it creates concepts that do not exist yet in reality. A goal, by definition, is something that at first only exists as a mental concept. It is something that does not exist in reality yet, hence there is always the tension of cognitive dissonance in whether or not the goal is realistic, possible to attain and worth striving after. Viktor Frankl talks about this tension of cognitive dissonance in the following quote:` “Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension: The tension between what one already has achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap of what one is and what one wants to become.”

When (too much) cognitive dissonance arises, our tendency is to minimize and neutralize it, to bring cognition/concepts (our mental map of the world) in alignment with what we perceive in the outside world. This may involve changing our behaviour, changing our concepts or sometimes even changing the way in which we are perceiving reality.

The next book piece will drop at Wednesday January 25th on the topic of Selective Attention and the Self-Schema

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One Response to Healthy Boundaries, Concepts & Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Pingback: Summary, Completion and the Capacity for Challenge | identityisdynamic

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