Cognitive Dissonance and This Election

by Luna Flesher (cross posted from

Let me preface this by stating I am a pragmatic libertarian, meaning I am civilly liberal and fiscally conservative. I add "pragmatic", because every situation is complex, and should be looked at from all sides, where "principle" is only one factor -- reality is another.

I've done a lot of reading over the years on how people are persuaded, and how beliefs work in the brain. Most of my studies focused on cults and mind control, but it gives me an interesting perspective on societal dynamics as well.

There is a psychological theory called Cognitive Dissonance/Consonance. A cognition is defined as any thought, belief, feeling, experience, idea, or other mental "thing". We have tons of cognitions, and they all add up to be our total belief system. Our brain is motivated to more or less keep these cognitions in harmony. When we encounter a new cognition that confirms our existing cognitions, we feel consonance. When something goes against our existing cogntions, we feel dissonance.

In a dissonant state, we are motivated to bring ourselves back to consonance. Some here are some examples of dissonance a person may encounter:

* Someone on TV states a fact that goes contrary to what I believe
* There are people preaching against my religion
* A close friend comes out as being in a lifestyle or belief system I don't agree with
* I have an experience that goes counter to what I had previously assumed to be true
* A politician I supported is caught in some scandal.

We can get rid of the dissonance in one of three ways: Alter the importance of a cognition, Change a cognition, or add new cognitions. These three methods can be applied either to help us reject the new cognition, or to accept it. To break it down further:

1. We can alter the importance of our existing cognitions: "Well it didn't matter anyway", "What I believe is more important than this new information".

2. We can alter the importance of the new cognition: "That fact may be true, but it's minor compared to all the facts that support my claim", or "Who cares about those people anyway?"

3. We can change our existing cognitions to be in line with the new information. This is probably the most rare choice, but in my opinion, the most healthy and truthful one. "Well, if that's true, I'll have to look into it more."

4. We can change or dismiss the new cognition, "That guy is not trustworthy, because he's a Democrat or a CNN reporter, so his bias means that information is not true." Along these lines, our perception and actual memory of an experience or what was said can change. "He said it in a hateful way".

5. We can accept the new cognition, but add even more new cogntions so we can keep the old and have it all make sense. For example, if you trust both religion and science, and a scientific fact is released that goes contrary to your religion, you may add new ideas or interpretations of the fact or of your religion, which helps both remain compatible.

The more vested we are in a certain belief system or set of cognitions, the more dissonance will occur, and the more radical our reaction will be. Some of the above can make a person literally crazy if she is strongly attached a certain belief, and is flooded with disconfirming cogntions on a regular basis.

Certain actions can make a person more attached to their beliefs. For instance, if a person's livelihood depends on the belief (clergy, scientists with a life's work, politicians), they will experience more dissonance. If they have made public statements or commitments about the firmness of the belief. If three are friends and family ties that might be sacrificed. If a person has contributed a lot of money to a cause. etc.

Interestingly, one of the things that happens when people with strong beliefs are confronted with a major disconfirming event, is they proselytize. The mental rationale here is that the more people who believe like you, the more true your beliefs must be. It's the warm fuzzy you get when "preaching to the choir" about any topic. A 1956 study was documented in the book When Prophecy Fails, about a cult who believed the world would end on a certain date. The researchers were able to infiltrate this group and observe what happened to the core members when the world did not end. In accordance with their hypothesis, the cult members went door to door looking for converts after the UFO did not come and destroy the world.

How does this apply to this election? The most core, diehard conservatives, who believe in conservatism with all their hearts, have been confronted with a cubic truckload of disconfirmations over the last few years. Their hero, George W. Bush, was caught lying, a lie that took us into a preemptive war. He and the Republican congress created bigger government. After ruining the economy (not something Republicans supposedly do), he's socializing the banking industry. He and the party have been doing a lot of things that go against the beliefs of their constituents. And now McCain, a supposed maverick, doesn't seem much better. In addition, he is making a lot of mistakes.

Rather than step back (like I did in 2000) and ask, "Why is my party not following my beliefs, beliefs I thought we shared?" they maintain their belief in the party and its representatives. They also can't toss out their core beliefs, so instead they add a lot of beliefs to make it work. They get behind their guy and prosyletize. They listen to talk radio and go to rallies and get all fired up.

They send around emails accusing Obama of being everything from a Muslim extremist who will destroy America first chance he gets, to being a radical black Marxist who will communize America first chance he gets. Nevermind that these accusations have been fact-checked and appear on Snopes as being flat out lies. Nevermind that some of these accusations don't even make sense! (Muslim fundamentalists and 60's radicals have absolutely nothing in common.) They will believe any irrational thing that stokes their consonance, and reject anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.

McCain may be bad, but at least he's not a Terrorist!

Interestingly, this fervor backfires in the minds of those who are not experiencing it. From a different perspective, irrational emails and the spread of outright lies causes a different kind of dissonance and consonance. Like a nagging mother who constantly pesters a teenager to clean his room, this makes the middle and the left want to side with Obama even more.

Not every conservative has chosen this way out of their dissonance. While the core Right is becoming radical, they are in the minority. Many more (both liberals and conservatives) seem to be moving towards the middle. By "middle" here, I mean independents who are more willing to think for themselves than align blindly to any ideology or party. I think after being lied to, and then realizing it was a lie, they are not willing to trust any longer.

Quite a few major conservatives lately (Colin Powell, Chris Buckly, George Will, and others) have been able to see what's going on in this campaign for what its worth, and have spoken out about it. Many have declared publically that they are voting for Obama because he seems the most conservative and pragmatic of the two.

For those of us who are actively seeking truth to avoid dissonance by making up our own minds, the internet is a huge help. It is easy to know when someone is lying. You can just pull up YouTube and see exactly what someone said or didn't say, check out any rumors, or research the information from a campaign ad to see if it's true.

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