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Unlock The Power of Cognitive Dissonance

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Last week, I was listening to Outsmarting Yourself, an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast. It was about the cognitive dissonance theory. Cognitive dissonance arises when action conflicts with belief. This happens all the time. We all want to be our authentic selves and behave accordingly. However, our actions contradict our beliefs occasionally. When this occurs, we either have to change what we do or justify our actions somehow. More people find it easier to justify their actions rather than change. Wow, that’s very interesting! Is there a way to use cognitive dissonance to help us achieve our goals?

Exercise Dissonance

Here is an example of cognitive dissonance. I know exercise is vital for a healthy life. I’m getting older and I want to enjoy my retirement for many years to come. Exercise and a good diet will help me stay healthy. That’s why I set a health goal every New Year.

This year, my health goal was to walk 8,000 steps per day. So far, my average is 5,465 per day and it is dropping. I know I should walk more, but I’m not. This is cognitive dissonance. Failing to walk more creates discomfort and I need to justify it somehow. Oh yes, I can do that. I have many excuses.

  • I’m too busy.
  • The weather is bad.
  • I just purchased a bike. I can bike more instead of walking.
  • I’m still healthy. I can exercise more when I’m older. Yeah, right…
  • This is a bad goal. I’ll set a more achievable health goal next year.
  • My step counter just broke. Yay! I don’t have to face my failure anymore.

Unfortunately, I can come up with plenty of reasons to avoid walking more. The bottom line is this goal is slipping further and further behind every month. I feel bad about it, but not bad enough to put more effort into it. Like most people, I’m too lazy. Our North American lifestyle makes it too easy to avoid walking. (That’s another excuse!)

There might be a way to fix this. I need to use one of my core beliefs to help achieve my health goal. One of my strongest core values is frugality. Next year, I’ll join a gym. Once I spend some money, I’ll have a very strong drive to get value out of it. It should be the motivation I need to exercise more. I hate wasting money.

FIRE core beliefs

What about FIRE? Is there a way to use cognitive dissonance to help achieve financial independence and retire early?

I’m very lucky because my core values and behaviors already align with the FIRE principles. This made FIRE much easier for me than most people. I’ll list a few here.

  • Frugality – I have always been frugal. My family didn’t have much money when I was young. We saved money in whatever way we could. Frugality stuck and I still dislike spending money unnecessarily.
  • Optimism – Tomorrow will be better than today. This belief enables me to save and invest consistently. Our investment will grow and life will be better in the future. You have to be optimistic or else you won’t retire early. A lot of people need to feel secure and they won’t take any chances.
  • Unconventional thinking – I don’t mind being unconventional. Some people need to fit in. They care a lot about what people think. I’d rather go my own way. This enabled me to retire from my engineering career when I was 38. All of my college friends are still slaving away in the salt mines. They have different values.
  • Self-driven – I don’t need a lot of external motivation. This is important for early retirement. Some people have a hard time with retirement because their whole identity is wrapped up with work. But early retirement was very easy for me. I don’t need people to tell me what to do. I kept busy and I haven’t been bored yet. There are so many things to do every day. Retirement is probably more difficult for people who need external motivators.

These core beliefs help me FIRE. I act accordingly so no cognitive dissonance here. Unfortunately, FIRE is harder for most people. In the U.S., we are conditioned from a young age to enjoy spending money and living for today. It’ll be much harder to achieve financial independence if your core values don’t align with the FIRE principles. You might force yourself to save more for a while, but it won’t last. If you need acceptance, forget about it. However, there is still hope if you think saving for retirement is a good idea.

Unlock the power of cognitive dissonance

There is a good trick from the Hidden Brain episode that might help. Psychologist Elliot Aronson told the listeners about the hypocrisy paradigm. He used cognitive dissonance to help people act according to their beliefs. He asked people to advocate for something they believe in. After they did that, they became more likely to take action.

In the episode, they gave three examples.

  1. Using condoms.
  2. Taking shorter showers to conserve water.
  3. Voting.

The participants believed these were good ideas, but many of them didn’t follow through. However, more people took action after they became an advocate. In the voting experiment, they asked people to call 3 friends and told them to vote. After they did this, the callers were much more likely to vote. By publicly endorsing the idea, you’ll be more likely to take action. Nobody wants to be a hypocrite.

FIRE is good

If you believe FIRE is a good idea, but are having a difficult time following through. The way to push forward is to tell everyone about FIRE. Tell them you’re saving, investing, and you’re on your way to financial independence and early retirement. Becoming an advocate will help you reach your goal. Oh wow, that’s what I’ve been doing for 11 years! I stumbled onto this hypocrisy paradigm thing without knowing it. Being a FIRE blogger has been very helpful for me. It kept me on this path and I’m very happy with my life. If I can do it, anyone can.

So that’s the tip from this blog post. According to Aronson, the mantra is – “If I can do it, anyone can.” Tell people this and you’re more likely to follow through with your own action. It’s a damn good trick. However, you have to already believe FIRE is a good idea. This will help you follow through. It won’t change your belief if you think FIRE is a crackpot idea.

What do you think about this hypocrisy paradigm theory? It sounds legit to me. Maybe I should start an exercise blog…

*Passive income is the key to early retirement. These days, I’m investing in multifamily properties with CrowdStreet. They have many projects across the United States. Go check them out!

image credit: Ben White

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Joe started Retire by 40 in 2010 to figure out how to retire early. After 16 years of investing and saving, he achieved financial independence and retired at 38.

Passive income is the key to early retirement. This year, Joe is investing in commercial real estate with CrowdStreet. They have many projects across the USA so check them out!

Joe also highly recommends Personal Capital for DIY investors. They have many useful tools that will help you reach financial independence.

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