According to the Oxford dictionary cognition is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.In other words, cognition means our beliefs, values, opinions, and behavior. But sometimes our beliefs, values, and opinions confront each other.
It is believed that this theory draws its origins from L. Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory. According to the author, people intend to have internal psychological consistency. Discord in our own minds causes psychological distress. That’s why we have to do our best to avoid this condition. For example, Peter knows that smoking is a bad habit, but he keeps smoking. ‘I’m aware of the dangers of smoking’ and ‘I’m aware I’m smoking’ are two opposite cognitive realities. What should he do? The only way to resolve the conflict is to change one of the cognitions, making them closer to each other. He can convince himself that smoking isn’t that bad, or he can stop smoking.
One of my friends, John, called me tonight, saying that his girlfriend, Lexi, not only broke up with him, but also had been cheating on him with his best friend, Matt, for the last month. He said that his relationship with Lexi had been crashing down for a while, so he wasn’t really surprised when they decided to split up. But John had always considered Lexi to be an honest, decent person, and he was so glad to have a friend like Matt. One of his cognitions was, «The people I love are amazing, I’m so lucky to have them». Another cognition was, «The best people in my life have betrayed me». Now John doesn’t think he can trust anyone. And I know it’s going to take a long time before he can recover, because both of these cognitions were extremely important to him. We feel especially lost when we lose something we used to believe in.
Another common example of cognition conflict arise from the consequences of decision making. Do you remember feelings of trouble or anxiety while making a choice, especially when both options were equally attractive or equally unattractive, and somehow the responsibility was extremely consequential. Even after the choice was made, you could not find peace of mind. You kept thinking: «What if I had to choose another option?» — and you could not break out of this circle.
One of my acquaintances truly believes that a girl has to marry someone before age 25. That’s her first cognition. She’s 23 now, and she’s dating a very nice guy. She’s comfortable with him, but she doesn’t love him. He proposed to her a few months ago, but she still has doubts about marrying him. Her second condition is, «Love is the only true basis for a marriage». And now she’s just scared she won’t find anyone else. She won’t be happy if she says yes. But is there any guarantee she’ll meet someone else and will be happy with him? Not at all.
You might think she is not being especially smart. After all, what is the difference between getting married at 25 or 27? But this is her family’s tradition: her mother became a wife when she was 23, her grandmother was 25, and so on. So this is important for my friend. This example also demonstrates how cognitions can be formed: influences come from our families, friends, relatives, books and movies, society and cultural traditions. It’s pretty obvious that there are some widely held cognitions (for example, the obligation to take care of old relatives and children, whatever it takes) and there are also some cognitions based on culture only. I know that Dutch teenagers would have an intrapersonal conflict if they didn’t move out of their parents’ apartments by age 14-16. And it’s absolutely common in Russia to live at home with parents up until marriage.
One more type of cognition conflict is the conflict between behaviour and self-concept. Do you know anyone who works with crowds of people, while being an absolute introvert? This person might feel that a good book and a pet would be the best company ever. But, responding to the need to earn money, he keeps doing what’s very hard for him. The same situation affects the job we hate. I know a girl, she’s 22. And she hasn’t worked a single day in her life. That’s easier for her than choosing a job, taking a gap year when all of her group mates are doing their best to enter the university and find any job. She doesn’t have the cognition, «I have to go to university, not because I like it, but because my dorm room is cheap» or «I have to work to pay for my education».
There are thousands of cognitions in our heads, and that’s fine. All we have to do is to keep them all in harmony. As soon as our expectations, beliefs, and values start to contradict each other, we have a cognition dissonance which can also be called a cognition conflict. The only way of solving this one is to get rid of the gap between two cognitions, making them closer to each other. That’s exactly how a good mood and peace in your soul can be guaranteed.