Brian's Manly Mental Health Minute for 2/15/10: Living Up to Your Values Part 1: Recognizing Cognitive Distortions.

One of the central themes of the Art of Manliness has been, and doubtless will continue to be helping men better define their manly values. While values will no doubt vary
from man to man, we are all in agreement that manly men strive to not
only have manly values, but to live up to them as well. However as
Adlai Stevenson put "It t is often easier to fight for
principles than to live up to them..."

Why this is true is a complex question, but part of the reason we often do not act in a way that is consistent with our values is cognitive distortions.

However I am getting slightly ahead of myself and need to back track slightly. Normally when we do something that is in line with our values we feel good about
ourselves. One would therefore assume that when we behave in a way
that is inconsistent with our values we would feel bad. This is
mostly true, though when we are coerced by outside circumstances or
were unaware that given course of action would be problematic until
after the fact we generally do not feel bad, or at least not in the
same way. What this post is about is those times that we choose
to do something that goes
against our values with some knowledge of the consequences. When we
do this we create something in our minds called cognitive dissonance.
We experience this as that stressful, unpleasant, icky feeling of
having let ourselves down. This is a very unpleasant feeling and so
we are motivated to get rid of it. There are three ways to do that
a) change your behavior, b) change your value, or c) distort your
perception of reality. Which strategy do you think is used most
often? If you guessed "c" you get a gold star.

There are a number of different ways that people distort their perceptions of reality so as to get rid of cognitive dissonance. These include:

-Change the Perception of the Behavior: This typically involves minimization of the amount, duration, etc. of the behavior that is inconsistent
with the value. For example if a person values good physical health
and yet continues to eat large amounts of snacks and junk food the
thought might be "I really don't eat all that many snacks."

-Add Consonant Cognitions: This involves adding thoughts which are consistent with the value, but don't necessarily reflect reality,
basically lying to yourself. Using the same scenario as before an
example of this would be "The snacks I eat are high in vitamins
and other nutrients."

-Minimize the Importance of the Conflict: This is just like it sounds, trying to convince yourself that you shouldn't feel bad because the conflict
is not as important in the grand scheme of things. Continuing with
the above scenario a person might tell themselves "I don't care
if I eat junk food, life is to short not to enjoy myself."

-Reduce Perceived Choice: We typically don't feel, or at least feel less, cognitive dissonance if we were coerced in some way, so this strategy
revolves around convincing yourself that you didn't have a choice.
For example "It would be rude if I didn't eat the snacks at the
party, and I don't want to insult my host."

When put out in black and white these all sound somewhat ridiculous, but that is why they are distortions
rather than clear thinking.

You are probably thinking at this point that this is all well and good, but how does this help me be a better man and live up to my values?
The thing of it is that many people are so used to using these
distortions that they are barely aware that they are doing it. Their
mind goes so quickly from negative behavior, through dissonance, to
these distortions that they're barely even aware of the fact that
their thinking is distorted. It is therefore incredibly important
for a man trying to live up to his values to be aware of these
distortions so that he can watch out for them in his own thinking.
Part of changing your behavior so that it is closer to your values is
recognizing these distortions for what they are and rejecting them.
This will be an unpleasant process, as you have stripped away what
was protecting you from the negative feelings associated with failing
to live up to your values. Though, like they say with exercise, no
pain no gain. Without the distorted thinking a man is free to use
that pain to motivate him to change his behavior and be a better man.

Until next week may you be manly and mentally healthy.


Reference: Social Psychology: Sixth Edition, Sharon S. Brehm, Saul Kassin, Steven Fein, Copyright 2005 by Houghton Mifflin, New York, NY.

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Comment by Chris on February 22, 2010 at 7:42pm
Tom, or one of the other guys lurking around, would you mind posting yours? I'd love to see an example of what this Code or NUT looks like.
Comment by Tom Gunn on February 19, 2010 at 5:06pm
The best way I've found to elimated about 80% of the cognitive dissonance in my life is to write up a code of honor. It's been referred to on this site as Non-Negotiable Unalterable Terms or N.U.Ts, but code of honor works for me.

I review my code every day. I make a real ritual of it. When my mind starts winding down that familiar path of justifying behavior that's inconsistent with my values I simply remember the code.

It does for me what a constitution does for a government. It has checks, balances, and fail-safes to keep me on track.

Thanks for the great post.

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