The phrase was coined by Leon Festinger in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, which chronicled the followers of a UFO cult as reality clashed with their fervent belief in an impending apocalypse, a scenario that has played out quite frequently over the past half century. Festinger subsequently published a book called A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in which he outlines the theory. Cognitive dissonance is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.
There are numerous situations which, as they play out, leave us at odds with ourselves. Sometimes there is a dissonance between how we see ourselves and our behavior. Sometimes the dissonance is with regard to our desires and our convictions. In Dylan’s A Simple Twist of Fate, which I wrote about in December, the most telling line is, “He told himself he didn’t care.”
It’s a small dismissive line that is filled with ever so much. It’s clear that he is lying to himself. He cares immensely, but the reality is so foreign from what he wants and he knows it is an impossibility, so he lies to himself. He tells himself he doesn’t care. He’d hoped to find her there when he woke, because he wants to be near her. But this is not a girl friend. It’s a “working woman” whose occupation involves men down by the waterfront.
The gulf between his life and hers is immense. We don’t know what that life is, but we see plainly what hers is. They meet, go to a dingy hotel and she goes on to her next client.
The dissonance is apparent in the opening stanza as well.
They sat together in the park
As the evening sky grew dark
She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones
’Twas then he felt alone and wished that he’d gone straight
And watched out for a simple twist of fate
"Wished that he’d gone straight" indicates his recognition that he’s playing a game with his own mind. He initially hopes for this encounter, but once set in motion he is immediately aware this relationship was inappropriate and untenable. Maybe he sees her as a human being and believes he can rescue her. Maybe she’s been down this path so many times that she knows he’s smoking too much dope.
But dissonance can be over principles like patriotism and war. Many people have strong convictions about the value and importance of patriotism while being at odds with the behavior of their country in its relations to the larger world, or its own citizens. I am opposed to American militarism and have pacifist convictions yet see that in a world where there are Hitlers and Stalins it would not be in our national interest to disarm our military forces. Would that everything were black and white, but... it's not.
For a more in depth introduction to this principle, it's history and related psychological themes, a good place to start is Wikipedia.