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Cognitive Dissonance Affects Us All, Not Just QAnon Adherents

When conspiracy fails: How different are they from us?

Source: Tyler Merbler/CC BY 2.0
2021 storming of the United States Capitol.
Source: Tyler Merbler/CC BY 2.0

Congress voted recently to ban Atlanta Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from participating in House committees. This came in the wake of her many statements endorsing violence and spreading conspiracy theories. As the debate over Taylor Greene’s views continues to rage, it’s worth stepping back from the politics for a moment to consider the psychology behind them.

Many of Taylor Greene’s views were shared by the hardcore Trump supporters who invaded the Capitol in January. Like Taylor Greene and other QAnon adherents, they were expecting a “Great Awakening,” in which Trump would declare martial law and Democratic party leaders and disloyal Republicans would be rounded up and exiled to Guantanamo. Instead, Biden has taken up residence in the White House and Trump is playing golf in Florida.

As social psychologist Leon Festinger and colleagues showed 60 years ago, when prophecies fail, followers adopt a variety of strategies to lessen the pain. Some recant and move on, disillusioned. Some revise the prophecy or the schedule by which it will be realized. Some even explain that the prophesy did in fact come to pass but that its effects aren’t yet visible to all. The common thread in such responses is the attempt to deal with what Festinger called “cognitive dissonance”—the stressful experience of holding two or more mutually contradictory beliefs at the same time.

We’re now seeing similar responses among Trump’s hardcore followers. Some described his denouncement of the Capitol’s invasion as “a punch in the gut” and a “stab in the back.” Others suggested that the video of Trump’s disavowal was a deep fake fabricated by his enemies.

Much commentary on Taylor Greene’s views and these responses by Trump’s followers focus on their credulity and arrogance, and how these are fed by isolation from opposing opinions and disconfirming data. But to understand what makes people susceptible to demagogues and conspiracy theories, we must look not only at what they do differently to us but also at what they do that’s the same.

Many of us are susceptible to similar kinds of closed-mindedness. As recent studies of polarization show, we’re increasingly likely to read and forward news items that cohere with our existing political beliefs. We congregate with like-minded friends and reinforce through frequent rehearsal the beliefs we share.

One of the more intriguing findings of cognitive dissonance research is our tendency to rate preferred alternatives more highly after choosing them than beforehand. To minimize the dissonance between our choice and residual doubts, we double down on our preference and rate our chosen alternative more highly. This applies not only to political parties and candidates for whom we’ve voted but also to products we’ve bought, jobs we’ve chosen, and people with whom we’ve built relationships.

It’s not only in politics that we are susceptible to over-commitment and its consequences. And it’s not only extremists who limit their exposure to disconfirming evidence and contrary opinions. The question is: Where’s the tipping point? When does ordinary confirmation bias slip into the kind of blind faith that led Trump supporters to invade the Capitol?

There does not seem to be any single Rubicon that is suddenly crossed. There is, instead, a cumulative loss of what philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, called “a sense of reality.” The more we shield ourselves from alternative perspectives, avoid data inconsistent with our beliefs, and interact only with those who share our views, the more vulnerable our sense of reality becomes.

Our best defense is to pay special attention to inconvenient facts that challenge our beliefs and aspirations; but to do so without supplanting passion with skepticism—to acknowledge the partiality of our decisions, while also standing firmly behind them.