A guide to how narcissists and psychopaths use cognitive dissonance, and how to defeat it.
What is Cognitive Dissonance?
Social psychologist Leon Festinger proposed a theory called cognitive dissonance to describe how conflicting thoughts, beliefs and behaviors can cause an uncomfortable discrepancy. Cognitive dissonance can occur when people learn new information that contradicts their beliefs (belief-disconfirmation), when they act in a way that contradicts their beliefs possibly due to anticipated reward or punishment (induced compliance), or when they engage in an undesirable activity to meet a desired goal (effort-justification). These uncomfortable discrepancies can compel people to try to resolve the cognitive dissonance by changing their thoughts, beliefs or behaviors to restore a sense of consistency and stability.
Neuroscience research indicates that cognitive dissonance activates certain brain regions which affect our decision-making, the processing of our emotions and the avoidance of aversive outcomes, such as the medial prefrontal cortex, the insula and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. To resolve cognitive dissonance, people may do one of the following: 1) change their behavior to resolve the conflict 2) change one of their conflicting thoughts in an attempt to justify continuing the behavior 3) add other “consistent” or consonant thoughts to build a case for one thought over the other or 4) minimize the significance of the inconsistency (or dissonant thoughts) or increasing the significance of consonant thoughts.
Cognitive Dissonance and Relationships with Narcissists and Psychopaths
Research indicates that people in romantic relationships with narcissistic and psychopathic individuals can experience PTSD symptoms related to the relationship. While the harm arising from these relationships is apparent, cognitive dissonance is still prevalent in these types of relationships due to the manipulation and gaslighting survivors are often subjected to. In the realm of intimate partner violence, studies show that abuse victims who are bonded to their abusers (abusers who tend to have antisocial or narcissistic traits) may resolve cognitive dissonance by minimizing or justifying the abuser’s behavior to cope with the trauma of the abuse, engage in self-blame, or reinterpret the aggression in a way that allows for positive feelings about the abuser to continue (i.e. “They were just joking. They didn’t mean it like that”). They may also blame the abuse on an external source, such as substances.
These justifications and leniency are subconscious attempts to resolve cognitive dissonance and tend to make the victim more tolerant of the abuse over time in more committed relationships due to the higher levels of investment. It is also clear that narcissistic abusers use gaslighting tactics to blameshift and to evade accountability for their abuse, which can instill or exacerbate self-blame.
How to Reduce/Fight Back Against Cognitive Dissonance
Here are some powerful ways you can cognitively reframe your experiences with a narcissistic or psychopathic abuser to resolve cognitive dissonance in ways that protect and benefit yourself instead:
1. Reconcile the differences between the narcissist’s true self and their false self by identifying that it is part of their manipulation. Identifying the narcissist’s true self and their false self is key to resolving cognitive dissonance. Narcissists and psychopaths engage in emotional shape-shifting and chameleon-like behavior to dupe their targets. This is because they are emotionally shallow and do not experience the strong emotions or empathy they claim to feel for others. They can don different personas to make you question yourself and the mistreatment you’re experiencing. That is why you tend to experience Jekyll and Hyde behavior from them to disorient you and make you walk on eggshells – because they are shifting between different identities to get their needs met from other people.
This can create dissonant thoughts and beliefs about who the narcissist really is, and make you engage in specific behaviors or rationalizations to “justify” staying in the relationship. For example, abuse victims may start to believe that they are the ones who are “causing” the narcissist’s behavior when in reality the narcissistic individual follows these manipulative patterns with most of their partners. Or they may gaslight themselves into believing that the narcissist is the loving, empathic partner they portrayed themselves to be in the beginning who “occasionally” gets frustrated and lashes out, minimizing the frequency of the actual abuse. The narcissist will actively add to this cognitive dissonance by blaming you for their abuse and claim that you are the only one who has ever had this problem with them.
In order to resolve this dissonance, you must realize that the positive qualities the narcissist portrayed in the beginning is unlikely to be an identity your narcissistic partner embodies long-term. See it as an initial mask they wore to lure you into the relationship – a mask constructed to appeal to your unique needs, wants, and desires. Once they take this mask off and begin to devalue you, you witness their true colors and their lack of empathy and character. It can help to make a list of the qualities you witnessed in their false self, with a heading like, “The narcissist pretended to be this.” Then, next to this list, write down the qualities you’re experiencing now under the heading, “This is who they really are.”
2. Identify the sunk cost fallacy and any fear of “missing out” of the narcissist’s potential and realize that you do not miss the narcissist, but rather who they pretended to be. In the economics world, the sunk cost fallacy is when a person continues to invest in a behavior, endeavor or undertaking due to the time, energy, and resources they’ve put into it already, regardless of the losses or risks they have incurred and will continue to incur. Think about all that this toxic relationship has already cost you in comparison to the meager benefits. The narcissist may have used tactics such as future faking and love bombing to make you believe in their potential. Now, it’s time to get in touch with the reality of the dark future that awaits if you continue to engage with them. Read stories from other survivors who have survived this type of abuse in long-term marriages to better understand how a narcissistic or psychopathic individual can change your life-course trajectory and cause severe trauma. Ask yourself, what risks and losses will I face in continuing in this relationship?
Identifying the narcissist’s true self and the harm they have caused – and the harm they will inevitably cause in the future – will allow you to look at your own sunk cost fallacy more critically and realize that there is no “payoff” or positive return to the investment you’re putting into the relationship. In fact, you stand to lose more than you will ever gain should you choose to stay in such a relationship. Remember: you are no longer in a relationship with the false persona they depicted in the beginning – so you cannot anticipate a future with their potential. You must anticipate the traumatic future that awaits with their true self. You do not miss the narcissist. You miss who they pretended to be.
3. Learn about the most common manipulation tactics and identify the ones that have been used against you. When you are not aware of the various manipulation tactics narcissists and psychopaths engage in, it’s easy to fall into the trap of self-blame, or minimizing and rationalizing the narcissist’s actions as accidental or just part of the spectrum of “normal” human imperfections. Differentiate between normal human flaws and pathological behavior by assessing the tactics narcissists and psychopaths use frequently to exploit others. Identify tactics such as gaslighting, love bombing, hoovering, dog-whistling, projection, countering, jealousy induction and other diversion tactics that narcissists use to keep you off-kilter and dependent on their validation. Write down or recall how each tactic has been used against you to make you feel like you are the unworthy one who has been “provoking” the narcissist. In reality, the narcissist or psychopath has been repeatedly provoking you and going out of their way to cause you distress.
4. Reality check the narcissist’s pity ploys and rationalizations – and your own justifications of their behavior. Survivors of abuse can fall into the trap of rationalizing the narcissist’s behavior as stemming from uncontrollable anger or minimize abusive incidents. Ask yourself how their behaviors can be accidental if they rarely take place in front of other witnesses. For example, why doesn’t the narcissist or psychopath rage at their boss like they rage at you behind closed doors, if their behavior is so uncontrollable and out of frustration? Is it because they know they will be held accountable and suffer consequences, which means they are fully in control of their behavior, know right from wrong and aware of what behavior they can and can’t get away with? If you assume that the narcissist’s childhood trauma is the source of their behavior, ask yourself why so much research indicates that parental overvaluation, not childhood maltreatment, causes narcissistic traits.
Even if they were traumatized, why is it that you yourself or other people you know have also experienced childhood trauma yet do not hurt innocent people? If the narcissist often stages pity ploys to convince you that they are the victim, ask yourself why you are always the one being harmed? Who is the true victim here – the one who is experiencing distress? Why is it that only the narcissist or psychopath can use anything negative that has happened to them in the past to justify harming you, when there are complex trauma survivors in the world who have never used their history to justify harming innocent people and may even use their past as an incentive to treat others more kindly? You’re an empathic person who extends empathy even to the narcissist harming you – yet the narcissist is habitually unempathic and callous toward others. Given this information, who do you think is really the source of relationship troubles here? Questions like these will help you to ground yourself in the reality of the narcissist’s willful abuse – and in the true nature of the narcissist.
The Big Picture: Battling cognitive dissonance in a relationship with a narcissist or psychopath can be overwhelming. It can be helpful to consult a trauma-informed mental health professional during your healing journey to guide you in processing your traumas. Use these exercises to identify your cognitive dissonance, your conflicting thoughts and beliefs about the abusive relationship and clear the mental fog so you can safely exit the relationship.