Dealing with Cognitive Dissonance

In an old episode of Star Trek, a powerful android threatened Captain Kirk and was defeated when asked an impossible question.  Kirk actually employed “induced computer destruction” at least four times during the series.

The human brain is like a computer in some ways and holding conflicting views can be very uncomfortable.  The term “cognitive dissonance” comes up regularly in political discussions, probably because these issues are rarely cut and dried, but are considered very important.  It is defined as “the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes.  People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so this conflict causes feelings of unease or discomfort.”

If you feel strongly that a candidate you support for high office should be honest and you catch him lying, you may experience cognitive dissonance.

So how would someone resolve this conflict?  Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D. explains in a Psychology Today article:

  1. Choose to ignore the new conflicting information;
  2. Commit even further to our beliefs;
  3. Avoid exposure to contradictory information…

Take the case of a pro-abortion advocate whose main argument is “it’s my body and I have the right to make my own medical decisions,” who also believes in mandatory vaccines, even against someone’s personal will.  How can this be resolved?

Looking at the coping behaviors listed above, someone might feel very uncomfortable learning that the vaccines are not as effective as promised, or the side effects are more dangerous than the disease.  When we first heard of COVID we were told it was 5-10% fatal, since that was the death rate in the Washington nursing home. 

One subconscious strategy might be to simply ignore the new information that COVID is not as deadly as first thought, or conclude that the side effects are overstated.  With social media, it’s easy to only visit groups that agree with your views, while the other side is demonized.

A common reaction is to be even more adamant about your initial views that COVID is so deadly that it’s okay to force an injection on the unwilling, and believe that the side effects are just “right-wing delusions.”  You might redouble your efforts to convince others to your side.

Another example is the view that people should be required to carry a vaccine passport, while simultaneously thinking that voter ID is racist.  If people must be identified to ensure they’ve been vaccinated and boosted to protect others, why is it a bad idea for people to be properly identified in order to vote? What about people who might cheat by purchasing a fake vax passport?  Isn’t that just as bad as people who might vote using someone else’s name?

Yet another common belief is to support a political party “because I’ve always been a (Democrat or Republican).” Party views can change over time.  This is very similar to rooting for a football franchise simply because they were your home team growing up.  An odd thing often happens.  The star player you idolized on Monday is traded to another team and suddenly becomes a hated traitor the next day.  He’s the same person, but has now switched sides.

Holding these conflicting views can be extremely uncomfortable and can lead to overreactions, such as cutting off communication with family members who have other opinions, or making statements online you would never make in person.  Instead of listening to new information that might make you change your mind, you vehemently attack the messenger as stupid or brainwashed.

You might support laws that clearly violate basic human rights in order to maintain your belief position or be willing to accept harsh punishments for those who refuse to comply.  Leaving these conflicts unchallenged means that large segments of our country will forever remain on opposite sides.

Since emotions are by definition not rational, most such discussions are taken personally and honest information is rarely discussed or considered.  People devolve into reciting the standard talking points until they walk away in anger.  Every Thanksgiving we are presented with liberal articles on how to survive turkey dinner with crazy Uncle Harold who thinks Trump is a great guy, or vaccines all contain poison.

Listen to a “discussion” on NPR or MSM about vaccines or “fair voting laws” and you only hear guests who already agree with each other.  The opposing view is only presented on conservative media.  People leave their echo chambers with the idea that everyone agrees with their side.

When it’s a candidate for local judge, it’s okay to disagree on who might be best to vote for.  But when it involves basic issues of personal liberty, the health of your family, and possible economic disaster, it becomes very important to try to bridge the gap and initiate an honest dialogue.

One suggestion is to avoid going head on, but start by asking honest questions about their views on the issue.  “I understand you support mandatory vaccines; can you tell me more?”

The key is truly being willing to listen to the other side.  If there really is a good reason to force everyone to take an injection, then you should be willing to change your mind.

Don’t argue your points, instead keep asking more questions.  “Tell me more,” and “why is that?” Questions are never threatening and part of resolving cognitive dissonance is recruiting others to your position.  They’d like nothing more than to change your views.

The problem with illogical trains of thought is that they rarely hold up to consistent questioning.  After three “whys” they often run out of talking points.  Repeat back what they just said using different words.  Hearing someone else say something that is logically inconsistent might wake them up to reality. 

Instead of going in for the kill, try to come up with a safe analogy that might shed light on their logic.  “Should we make seasonal flu shots mandatory, too?” “Should people lose their jobs if they don’t get them?” “If flu shots are a good idea, won’t people take them voluntarily?”

If they do start to see things your way, don’t gloat or rub their noses in it.  No one wants to be exposed as a fool.  Just take it as an opening -- “Thanks for sharing your views, let’s talk about it later.  Pass the cranberry sauce.”

You can’t change someone’s mind, only they can.

We often hear that people rarely change their minds.  But if you look at Biden’s approval numbers plummeting from 55% to 40% that means 15% of the American public has already changed their minds, so reaching out is definitely worth the effort.

If we don’t address our political differences, we’ll stay locked in our echo chambers.  If we can’t learn how to talk honestly with each other, our country will remain permanently divided, and a divided house will soon fall.

Image: J Gleason

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