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Cognitive Dissonance

Doubling Down: Why People Deny the Facts

In this partisan age, changing one's beliefs is hard.

Key points

  • People often develop narratives to protect themselves from the psychic pain of something that has happened.
  • Most do not confront their failings head-on, but rather practice different forms of evasion, rationalization, and realignment.
  • No one should manipulate the meaning of the January 6 Capitol attack simply to confirm their long-standing beliefs and allegiances.

If this highly politicized era teaches us anything, it is the extent to which many Americans will go to maintain their beliefs. Claims about “fake” news and rigged elections are manifestations of this. So is the argument that the viral pandemic is exaggerated, even a hoax. We have witnessed a radicalization of political parties, emboldening paramilitary groups, and fostering wild conspiracy theories. A mob breached our Capitol. Possibilities of criminal prosecution for the perpetrators, as well as censure and impeachment of public officials, are in the air.

Many people expressed horror at the insurrection. Others acknowledged their chagrin, even some measure of shame. But millions of others made no such acknowledgments. Indeed, they only hardened their view that their side is right and the other is wrong. To use Blackjack lingo, they doubled down.

In the neighborhood where I live, at least three families have taken to flying their American flag upside down. One might imagine this to signify that the nation is in distress because of the attack on the Capitol. Based on their yard signs and bumper stickers, another conclusion is in order. They do this to maintain their protest of a purportedly stolen election. Another neighbor flies the Betsy Ross flag, adopted by QAnon. A friend reports that his sister and her husband have shifted from Fox News, not because it is too conservative but because it is too progressive. Fox has started, or so the couple argues, “to drink the Kool-Aid.”

These are all, I should note, middle- or even upper-middle-class citizens. Several are college graduates. Why are they so defiant?

This general issue, why people obdurately maintain their beliefs, has long been a concern of behavioral scientists. One of the most famous of those studies was When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. Their research focused on a small group in Chicago who believed that the world would perish from a great flood on December 21, 1954. The only ones to escape the disaster would be the cult members themselves, who would find transport on a flying saucer from the planet Clarion. To that end, they quit their jobs, abandoned their possessions, and otherwise made themselves ready for the ascension.

December 21 came and went without incident. To be sure, there was some regret and recrimination. However, for the most part, the cult reaffirmed its general view. Earthlings had received a “second chance” to mend their ways. The good works of the cult were one reason for this. Those works broadened to include environmental stewardship and social justice. The remaining members pledged their solidarity.

Any group that makes a daring, quite specific prediction about the future awaits this fate. However, all of us “put ourselves out there” from time to time. We claim confidence that we will graduate from school, perhaps with outstanding grades, or that we will get a promotion at work. The person that we are dating now, or so we tell our friends, is “the one.” That investment tip we got from a friend is too good to pass up; we express the same confidence in our team for this weekend’s big game. And here’s another one. Our candidate will definitely win the election this November. We know that because all the people we know are voting for him. Our community teems with signs avowing the same support. His loss is an impossibility.

Sometimes, and like those cult members, we are wrong. Like them also, we do not acknowledge fully the error of our ways. After all, based on our lack of success at school and work, we could admit that we are just not very good at either of these pursuits. We could confess to having poor judgment about romantic involvement, stock trading, and sports. We could ponder our political acumen or even reassess our allegiance to that unbeatable candidate. Do we do this?

According to what social psychologists call cognitive dissonance theory, most of us do not confront our failings and inconsistencies head-on. Instead, we practice different forms of evasion, rationalization, and realignment, all in an attempt to make us feel better about what occurred and to reaffirm that we are still the people we say we are.

In previous essays here, I have discussed our attempts to make ourselves — and the world — seem coherent and satisfying through the construction of “narratives,” stories we tell one another. Perhaps the most important audience for these stories is ourselves. Against the various obstacles that life puts in our way, we have to keep believing that we are people of good character and judgment. We have to believe that the world makes sense and that we can move through it with confidence. Narratives help us identify society’s good and bad characters and otherwise assign credit and blame. They keep us believing that we are the heroes of our own lives.

Freud was the master in explaining how we develop narratives of this sort, often to protect us from the psychic pain of something that has happened to us, or of something that we have done to others. By contrast, cognitive dissonance theory focuses on the logical inconsistency of our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. For example, we may avow that we love our fiancé and then cheat on them the next day. We may claim to sympathize with the difficulties of poorer people and then vote for a candidate who opposes raising the minimum wage. According to Festinger and his colleagues, these contradictions, or at least the more serious ones, trouble us. That is particularly the case if other people challenge us about the discrepancy.

As the reader can imagine, most of us do a lot of fancy footwork to escape our perceived lack of integrity. We may soften our beliefs about ourselves. (“OK, I’m not perfect. Nobody is.”) We may redefine the contradictory condition. (“I cheated because I was drinking and got carried away.” “I didn’t understand fully the candidate’s views on that issue.”) We may add new behaviors to correct the imbalance. (“I bought my fiancé a nice present and recommitted to them.” “I gave money to some social justice causes.”) We may try to deny that there was a contradiction. (“I was so drunk I don’t recall what I did last night.” “Politicians don’t do what they say they will anyway.”)

I have discussed this theory with my students through the years. Most of them say important inconsistencies bother them. But others say they aren’t that bothered. After all, our society encourages compartmentalization, that is, the separation of what you do at work from what you do at school from what you do in your social life. Anyway, no one is that consistent; and young people, in particular, have permission to try new ideas and behaviors. Everyone agrees, however, that it is a problem if people you care about will challenge you. Then justifications, like those just described, come into play. To stave off such challenges, it is best to hang out with people who agree with you and to consume media reports that reinforce your vision. All these rationalizations and evasions, I should note, are part of cognitive dissonance theory.

Let us come back to the issue at hand, people’s responses to the invasion of the Capitol on January 6. Consider the following cognitions: 1) “I supported, and still support, Donald Trump and his policies.” 2) “I believe his claims that the presidential election had illegal procedures.” 3) “I consider myself a patriotic American.” 4) “I believe in the rule of law.” 5) “I witnessed an invasion of the Capitol by Trump supporters after his fiery speech.”

Here are the kinds of rationalizations a cognitive dissonance theorist would expect to hear from such a person. Indeed, most of us have heard them.

“Those rioters were a fringe group. All political parties have them.”

“Actually, many of the rioters were leftists posing as Trump supporters.”

“If you want to talk about riots, talk about the Black Lives Matter protests in some cities. Some of those people burned property and occupied public buildings.”

“America has free speech protections. Like any citizen, a president, or a former president, has a right to say whatever they want.”

“Real patriotism means opposing false elections.”

“The left-wing media distorted what happened, emphasizing certain parts of Trump’s speech and focusing on the worst acts of violence.”

“The current impeachment charges against Trump are just part of a campaign against him that’s been going on since his inauguration in 2017.”

“Other politicians give fiery speeches. Let’s focus on them too.”

At the impeachment trial in the Senate this week, arguments like these will emerge. Conservative media pundits will reinforce them. People with like views will huddle together and support one another. For the most part, defenders of Trump will reinforce their commitment to him, even seeing that support as a defense of their way of life. Opponents will portray him as an inciter of violence and as a figurehead for much that is wrong with our country.

Be clear that most of us, at least at times, engage in rationalizations, evasions, and dissimulations like those just described. We defend people we like. We cling to our vision of life. We look to “people like us” for moral, intellectual, and emotional support. This is especially the case when we believe that our identity, and the identity of our country, is at stake.

It is precisely for that last reason that people must ponder deeply the meanings of January 6. This is no time to deny the importance of what happened that day or to manipulate its meanings in accordance with one’s long-standing beliefs and allegiances. Being patriotic requires confronting squarely the question of who we are as a nation.

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