A person’s mind processes information in a variety of ways, each using a different set of brain functions, senses, and emotions. As she processes information she seeks to balance those things to achieve her goals. As information is absorbed, the person tries to learn and retain what she needs, which affects her behavior.

Commonly studied and used to change behavior are:

Behavioral Stigma

Accountability

Exercise motivation

Seeking Out Alternatives

Dr. David John from Karolinska Institute has found a second type of cognitive dissonance in which people use cognitive inhibition—the use of distancing strategies to create some space between the individual and the situation.

Whereas a person may seek to reduce the level of conduct he feels guilty about engaging in, cognitive inhibition might seek to reduce the amount of potential personal deficits that might have come from it. He does this by making a distinction between his actions and how he feels. For example, a person might decide that regardless of the fact that she does something bad, she is not a bad person; even if she is, she is not the only bad person. Cognitive inhibition can be used to limit another person’s opinion to just their feelings (e.g., Dostoyevsky’s “Idiot”).

The Traits of Cognitive Dissonance

Dr. John said that studies have shown that people who exhibit both types of cognitive dissonance are more likely to be less satisfied with their lives and better at avoiding negative emotions than their healthier counterparts.

For example, people who use cognitive inhibition to prevent them from sustaining negative feelings and actions would include those who make a distinction between expressing an opinion and feeling it—such as voting, praying, or doing charity. The person would apply this kind of cognitive inhibition by engaging in judicious use of limiting agents such as focusing and slowing speech, thinking ahead to avoid angry responses, or other techniques.

By contrast, people who exhibit lower levels of cognitive dissonance involve issues of emotion—namely guilt. They might express negative emotions, but try to keep these impulses in check.

When events happen that cause guilt in a person, they might feel like they do not deserve the guilt—for example, by trying to reason with themselves or considering that there are reasons for such guilt. This kind of cognitive dissonance helps the person maintain personal integrity.

“The modality of the behavior also matters. Healthy individuals use cognitive inhibition to avoid negative emotions, but cognitive dissonance to maintain internal integrity,” John said.

A good clinical example of how this works is thinking about a situation in which one would harm someone, whether it is the person’s sister or their mother. If a healthy person feels guilt over such an act, a prefrontal cortical feature known as the limbic system would likely overwhelm it, and inhibit the person from doing so. Therefore, if a healthy person thought about such a situation and determined that his compassionate nature outweighs the moral responsibility that might be involved, then he probably would not do it.

The Problem of Moral Instruction

There is some controversy over whether people can remain psychologically healthy, or even very healthy, if they make errors in moral judgment, or “moral instruction.” For example, the line is blurring between people using moral instruction (e.g., blaming a person for an accident they cause) and simply using emotion as a guide for self-control.

Many philosophers are searching for methods of enhancing morality, which some philosophers have deemed too artificial to be in the service of reducing the desire for pleasure and avoidance of pain. One academic study, reported by Psych Central, looked at the psychological makeup of people who are self-control perpetrators and those who are “purposive moralists.” The researchers’ hope was to determine whether purposive moralists exhibited more of a difference in brain activity than did purposive perpetrators, indicating that one is more attached to the idea of morality. Purposive moralists may be relatively unaffected by the various behavioral challenges that may result in poor moral judgment, as well as religious and spiritual beliefs.

A particularly interesting study on the use of neurobiological methods to reduce guilt was conducted at Penn State University. If a person believes that they are guilty, her brains contain a neuronal response called a parasympathetic activation, which is related to the fight or flight response. Neurobiological techniques involve using such brain response as a motivating and, in some cases, relaxing force.

Ways to Enhance Morality Using Brain Stimulation