How Cognitive Dissonance Affects Us in Crazy Political Times


The recent U.S. presidential election and transition has created lots of conflict between people with different beliefs  and internal conflict due to our own beliefs. Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press/TNS via Getty Images
The recent U.S. presidential election and transition has created lots of conflict between people with different beliefs and internal conflict due to our own beliefs. Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press/TNS via Getty Images

Let's say you exercise regularly and eat balanced meals in appropriate portions. It's snack time after a particularly strenuous workout, and you're in the mood for something delicious. Instead of chowing down on something nutritious like you normally would, you devour a whole bag of chocolate-chip cookies, only to regret your indulgence later. Those feelings of guilt and shame? That's cognitive dissonance at play.

Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when we hold conflicting beliefs, or our actions don't match our values. Because we're bad at dealing with these inconsistencies, our instinct is to resolve them. We can minimize the dissonance by justifying, downplaying or changing an inconsistent belief or behavior. "I'll just call it a cheat day," you might say, sugar high from those guzzled cookies. Or you might point to all the evidence that chocolate is good for your health, and conclude that you actually did your body a favor. According to psychologist Leon Festinger's seminal cognitive dissonance theory, we have a drive that motivates us to reduce psychological discomfort and create consistency among our beliefs.

But cognitive dissonance doesn't just apply to minor choices — it rears its head in larger, societal matters, too. Enter contemporary politics in the United States.

"In politics, our need to justify our choice leads to the so-called 'honeymoon period,' in which a new president is afforded a great deal of good will following his election," says Joel Cooper, professor of psychology at Princeton University and cognitive dissonance expert, via email. Yet this year, Cooper says, dissonance has led to anger and protest from those who feel President Trump's election "was not the result of a legitimate collective choice of the American voters." Think of the "Never Trump" and "not my president" sentiments that many have adopted. The adherents of these movements create consonance (harmony among their beliefs) by rejecting Trump's legitimacy, because to them, his presidency is fraudulent or undeserved.

Voting citizens have long been combating cognitive dissonance during elections, though. We're bound to disagree with our preferred candidates on some policies or issues, but we still justify voting for them. In fact, a 2015 study out of Stanford and Harvard universities found that though voters have varied and complex policy preferences, they change those preferences to align with their chosen party's platform. That minimizes that icky feeling they might get because they're supporting a party with conflicting values or positions.

This could explain some people's zealous support of the U.S. president, despite their disapproval of his disparaging tweets or prejudiced statements. "The dilemma for voters is that they chose this candidate to be president with full knowledge and expectation that he behaved this way," says Cooper about Trump's controversial tweets. "The more he engages in it, the more dissonance they will have, and the more voters will reduce their dissonance by becoming even more positive about Trump."

Even though the effects of cognitive dissonance are ever-present in the political realm, the election of an unconventional, highly unfavorable (according to polls) candidate have made them even more apparent. Take the administration's banning of immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries. Data suggests that citizens of these countries pose little terroristic threat to Americans, considering they committed no fatal terrorist attacks in the U.S. from 1975-2015. So, the risk these immigrants pose statistically is not great enough to threaten national security and warrant such a drastic measure. In this way, the ban indicates cognitive dissonance among its enactors and supporters: They are justifying a ban that aims to increase Americans' safety, though there's strong evidence it will not do so.

"When events make us experience existential threats that are in contradiction to expectations of happiness and well-being, we are driven to make changes in order to restore consistency to our world," Cooper says. "Finding scapegoats to explain the precarious state of the world during hard times helps people's mental equation."

And then there's the proliferation of fake news and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway's accusation of alternative facts. This kind of confirmation bias, or the tendency to only accept information that conforms with pre-existing attitudes, is tied to our drive to resolve psychological discrepancies. We search for information that is consistent with our beliefs and follow like-minded news sources to avoid cognitive dissonance.

There are plenty of other signs of cognitive dissonance's presence in the current U.S. sociopolitical climate — like workers' desire to bring back coal jobs, despite the industry's decline, or the denial of well-evidenced climate change. It's obvious that people — conservative, liberal and in between — are struggling to maintain their values in a time of political upheaval. "We need to feel that our beliefs have a logical and psychological coherence," says Cooper. And considering how polarized the United States has been in recent years, this need has caused a ton of friction among Americans.

So, what can we do to make sure we're all communicating effectively when dissonance is so prevalent? The aforementioned study posits that close, empathetic relationships can change partisanship and policy positions. And Cooper emphasizes the value of understanding, cooperative conversation. "The key is to afford people the opportunity to entertain different points of view without seeing it as a discrepancy," he says. "The point is that the more a political discourse resembles a frontal attack on a person's attitudes or values, the more it will be dismissed and avoided. Showing consistency with other values that a person supports allows for greater acceptance and compromise."