Why inconsistency between actions and beliefs drives alcoholism - and how to stop it happening

Nov 09, 2022



I recently came across the most glorious typo. Glorious because it really made me think. The writer meant to type cognitive dissonance but what appeared on the page was cognitive dissidents. And it was a real aha moment for me.


Cognitive dissonance is used a lot in the context of addiction.


Merriam Webster (global dictionary) defines it as “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously”. And their definition of dissonance (without the ‘cognitive’ bit) is “inconsistency between the beliefs one holds or between one's actions and one's beliefs. That last one nails it for me – inconsistency between one’s actions and one’s beliefs is what makes alcohol addiction so incredibly painful. We believe that alcohol is harming us, and we make frequent and repeated vows not to drink and yet our actions are at odds with this belief, because we keep on drinking. And we beat ourselves up for lacking the willpower to follow through on our beliefs. It’s hellishly confusing.


I’m an intelligent person so why do I have this cognitive dissonance over drinking?


It has to do with the different parts of our brain being in conflict with each other. The part of our brain that is conscious and capable of intelligent, rational and analytical thinking is our pre-frontal cortex. It is the CEO of us. It is capable of assimilating a lot of information and making wise decisions on the basis of what we learn. In the case of alcohol, our pre-frontal cortex helps us to learn from experience (like how horrible hangovers are). It also absorbs the scientific information about the bio-chemistry that takes place when we drink, and helps us draw the conclusion that alcohol is harmful to us.


STOP DRINKING: a message that doesn’t get through to our subconscious


This part of the brain is not capable of analytical thought, but is driven by instinct and intuition. It can save our life, making us respond instantaneously to real or perceived danger. If a lorry is veering across the road towards you, you instinctively take evasive action. You don’t have time to think, you just swerve out of its way. That is your subconscious brain in action. The subconscious instinctively drives us towards things that give us pleasure and away from things that cause us pain.


The danger lies in the short-term high which encourages us to drink


It doesn’t take into account that the pleasure only lasts for 20-30 minutes and is then more than offset by the release of dynorphin, which is a depressant.


And this conflict between our subconscious and our conscious brains goes on for as long as it takes for us to reprogramme our subconscious and lay down new neural pathways.



GOOD NEWS: We can identify our beliefs and re-frame them – a key pillar of my coaching practise.


We can also adopt a different mindset, a different mental attitude towards alcohol. And that is why I was so struck by the idea of cognitive dissidents.


Surely it’s time to challenge the glorification of alcoholism in our society?


Merriam Webster defines a dissident as one who ‘disagrees, especially with an established religious or political system, organisation or belief’. As someone who works with people who struggle with alcohol addiction, there is plenty in our society that I disagree with.


  • I disagree with the glorification of alcohol in memes and birthday cards. Have you ever tried to get an 18th or 21st birthday card that didn’t make a joke out of getting drunk?


  • I disagree with the Mommy wine culture that has emerged in recent years. It serves neither the mothers not their children.


  • I disagree with the way that drinking alcohol is normalised in films and on TV. One of my clients told me that she had been watching The Split and was really struck by the omni-presence of wine…how come they aren’t slurring and falling over the whole time?


  • I disagree with having to explain that for me sparkling water IS a proper drink.


  • I disagree with lax rules around advertising that associate alcohol with social success and glamour. You never see loneliness or misery portrayed in an alcohol ad, yet that is the reality for a huge number of people – as evidenced by the fact that over two and half thousand people contact This Naked Mind every single week.


  • I disagree with the fact that governments around the world continue to allow such a harmful substance to be advertised, preferring instead to fill their coffers with the excise duty that comes from alcohol sales.


  • I disagree with the mandate that bottles should carry that ridiculous instruction that we should ‘drink responsibly’ – don’t you think we would if could??


Change is happening slowly and I’m here to help


I feel that we are on the crest of a wave, that those of us who have chosen an alcohol-free life are the early adopters.  If you’re fed up with the harm that alcohol has caused in your life and would like to be part of this dissident movement, by ditching the booze, then let’s talk. 


If you have got this far, chances are that you are concerned that you may have a problem with alcohol. Let's talk - you have absolutely nothing to lose and so much to gain!



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