Dissonance and Political Hypocrisy
A pandemic of self-protection and self-presentation.
Posted Oct 12, 2020
I’ve been academically intrigued in recent months to see so many political references to “cognitive dissonance.” As a social psychologist who has taught and conducted dissonance research for over 20 years, I see apparent dissonance processes unfolding in real life all the time. And certainly, the popular press caught on to “dissonance” years ago.
But lately, perhaps as another consequence of the pandemic, there seem to be even more popular press shout-outs to dissonance. There are even entire articles devoted to applying cognitive dissonance theory to political happenings and, in particular, to the perplexing remarks by politicians about Covid-19 (Aronson and Tavris, 2020).
What Is Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by inconsistency which most of us are then motivated to try to reduce. In particular, it can be a feeling of hypocrisy or a realization of having made a mistake, and it’s unpleasant. Or it’s supposed to be unpleasant.
How do so many politicians fall prey to it and then manage to handle it without coming clean?
Of course, some admit their mistakes and even resign. And some have switched political sides even voicing the intention to make up for their perceived mistakes (Noor, 2020). This coming-clean mode of dissonance reduction can be called behavior change, but it is relatively rare. As I’ve written elsewhere (Stalder, 2018), dissonance reduction typically involves a number of biases in self-protection and self-presentation. People don’t easily acknowledge negative truths about themselves.
The Cognitive Dissonance Legacy
The noticeable increase in dissonance references might reflect an increase in political hypocrisy or an increase in journalistic attempts to understand it. The term “cognitive dissonance” taps a gigantic research literature that goes back over 60 years (Festinger et al., 1956; Festinger, 1957). This research can offer insights into the growing divide between what many politicians say and what they later say or do.
In one of the first discussions of dissonance, Leon Festinger and colleagues (1956) described a cult event in which the cult leader’s extreme claims had been disproven. To deal with the apparent dissonance, cult members denied or rationalized away the evidence and then desperately sought new followers to support the face-saving reinterpretation of the situation. Loyal supporters of a mainstream political leader fall short of a cult, but when the leader makes false claims over and over, it’s not hard to find similar dissonance-reducing behaviors among the followers. Partisan talk radio and news channels offer a cult-like mode of dissonance reduction that Festinger originally called social support, which has evolved into current-day echo chambers.
Political Dissonance and Evasion
Some dissonance-reducing behaviors seem unique to politicians, such as literally running away from a reporter or claiming not to have yet read the bombshell news story. This mode of dissonance reduction may fall under what I refer to as “waiting it out.” In the recent vice presidential debate, both candidates simply didn’t answer certain questions.
In a form of denial, some politicians try to discredit the science or the verified news report that disproves their claims. Some may simply use a name-calling approach. Many politicians also use word games to evade questions or to answer in a way that minimizes the appearance of hypocrisy. Onlookers refer to these answers with terms like gymnastics, acrobatics, and twisting oneself “into a pretzel” (Bonn, 2019).
Even some doctors of politicians have resorted to word games. Dr. Sean Conley has admitted to lying or misleading the press in what he had said about Trump’s health (Stolberg, 2020). Conley claimed he had good reason, which may reflect a mode of dissonance reduction called external justification (or rationalization). Many high-profile politicians have downplayed masks and social distancing despite the science and despite many anti-masking politicians getting sick. Such downplaying may fall under a mode of dissonance reduction called trivialization. Or if some of these politicians used to follow science, prior to following Trump, then the mode of dissonance reduction may be an attitude change.
Among yet countless other high-profile examples of hypocrisy and dissonance in recent months is Republicans’ move to confirm a Supreme Court nominee within months of a presidential election despite explicitly and strongly arguing against that precise behavior in 2016. Democrats seem to have fewer Covid-19 health concerns about large gatherings or protests when they support more liberal goals. Trump and conservative media recently praised a drug that was created in a way (i.e., with fetal tissue) that they had previously argued against (Mandavilli & Holt, 2020). The president of Notre Dame requires students to follow Covid-19 rules that he did not follow himself at a White House Rose Garden event, an inconsistency not lost on some 200 Notre Dame students who have called for his resignation (Taylor, 2020).
It's not that there is never a reasonable explanation for an inconsistency. Sometimes there is, as in “but this is different.” Citing that explanation can reduce the dissonance in an unbiased way. But in so many cases, there is not a reasonable explanation, and so politicians fall into bias if not outright lies. The alternative is to acknowledge that they may be putting themselves or their party over country or over principles of fairness and safety.
Republicans vs. Democrats
Probably best left for another post, but briefly, who is more susceptible to hypocrisy and dissonance between Republicans and Democrats? Obviously, both parties have examples. And understandably, the party in power probably gets noticed for it more often by mainstream news. Interestingly, some Democrats are feeling dissonance over feeling empathy or compassion for Trump after he got sick because they are constantly outraged by Trump’s other behaviors (Logan, 2020).
Whether one political orientation is more prone to dissonance than the other may be an open and complicated research question. Republicans (not all of them) typically have a greater need for order and a greater aversion to ambiguity and inconsistency (Jost et al., 2003). One might think they would experience less dissonance because they would work harder to avoid it.
On the other hand, Republicans would feel greater discomfort from a smaller degree of unavoidable inconsistency. In addition, Republicans (not all of them) are typically more group-centric meaning more willing to follow each other and their leader and to criticize group members who don’t (Stalder, 2009), which can lead them into more dissonance such as in supporting a leader’s claims that they know to be false or dangerous.
But these Republican characteristics also provide immediate dissonance reducers in group-centric social support and in keeping their jobs by staying loyal to Trump, so any feelings of discomfort might not last long. The more politicians stick together within a party, the more the everybody-does-it defense can reduce their dissonance (Stalder, 2010).
Why political hypocrisy may be spiking this year undoubtedly has many answers. Political tribalism may be a major contributor (Aronson and Tavris, 2020; Feldman, 2020). What dissonance theory primarily offers is a framework of modes of dissonance reduction to explain the aftereffects of hypocrisy. I’ve identified at least seven formal modes: attitude change, behavior change, denial, external justification, social support, trivialization, and waiting it out (running away). The verbal gymnastics to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy may not reduce the personal discomfort from dissonance, or maybe it does through a form of denial, trivialization, or waiting it out.
Not all politicians are hypocrites, but recognizing potential modes of dissonance reduction may help us to be less misled by some politicians’ face-saving claims and to see more clearly the underlying facts. It might even help us to try to convince the politician or at least ourselves to reduce dissonance in a less biased way.
Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris, “The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic,” Atlantic, July 12, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/role-cognitive-dissonance-pandemic/614074/.
Tess Bonn, “Dem Lawmaker: Barr 'Twisted Himself into a Pretzel' Trying to Defend Trump,” Hill, May 2, 2019, https://thehill.com/hilltv/rising/441782-dem-lawmaker-barr-twisted-himself-into-a-pretzel-trying-to-defend-trump.
Linda Feldmann, “How Political Tribalism is Leading to More Political Hypocrisy,” Christian Science Monitor, January 10, 2020, https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2020/0110/How-political-tribalism-is-leading-to-more-political-hypocrisy.
Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957).
Leon Festinger et al., When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1956).
John T. Jost et al., “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” Psychological Bulletin 129 (2003): 339-75.
Erin B. Logan, “How Do You Feel Empathy for a Man Who Has None?”, Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-10-05/la-ol-trump-empathy-covid.
Apoorva Mandavilli and Nathalia Holt, “Treatment That Trump Called a ‘Cure’ Was Tested With Cells Derived From Fetal Tissue,” New York Times, October 8, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/health/trump-covid-fetal-tissue.html.
Poppy Noor, “The Trump Supporters Who Changed Their Minds: 'I'd Rather Vote for a Tuna Fish Sandwich,'” Guardian, July 14, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/14/trump-republican-voters-who-changed-their-mind.
Daniel R. Stalder, “The Bias and Embarrassment of Hypocrisy,” Psychology Today, October 3, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/bias-fundamentals/201810/the-bias-and-embarrassment-hypocrisy.
Daniel R. Stalder, “Political Orientation, Hostile Media Perceptions, and Group-Centrism,” North American Journal of Psychology 11 (2009): 383-99.
Daniel R. Stalder, “The Power of Proverbs: Dissonance Reduction through Common Sayings,” Current Research in Social Psychology 15 (2010): 72–81.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Instead of Reassurance, Trump’s Doctor Delivers Confusion, Experts Say,” New York Times, October 4, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/04/us/politics/trump-doctor-conley.html.
Tolly Taylor, “200-Plus Notre Dame Students Call on President Fr. Jenkins to Resign, Citing Hypocrisy,” WSBT 22, September 30, 2020, https://wsbt.com/news/operation-education/200-plus-notre-dame-students-call-on-fr-jenkins-to-resign-citing-hypocrisy.