The Atlantic: Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic

Current Affairs

Surgical masks MJN6CpTO

Two social scientists describe how their work on Cognitive Dissonance explains the irresponsible public health behaviors that many humans are exhibiting in this pandemic. After a description of research into the behavior, and a frank admission that this is the way our brains work, they go on to explain how they understand what’s happening.

(I’ll add that they do not mention, but that I suspect, that there are people who know this human mechanism and are exploiting it for personal power and gain.) 

The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic – The Atlantic:

Because of the intense polarization in our country, a great many Americans now see the life-and-death decisions of the coronavirus as political choices rather than medical ones. In the absence of a unifying narrative and competent national leadership, Americans have to choose whom to believe as they make decisions about how to live: the scientists and the public-health experts, whose advice will necessarily change as they learn more about the virus, treatment, and risks? Or President Donald Trump and his acolytes, who suggest that masks and social distancing are unnecessary or “optional”?

The cognition I want to go back to work or I want to go to my favorite bar to hang out with my friends is dissonant with any information that suggests these actions might be dangerous—if not to individuals themselves, then to others with whom they interact.

How to resolve this dissonance? People could avoid the crowds, parties, and bars and wear a mask. Or they could jump back into their former ways. But to preserve their belief that they are smart and competent and would never do anything foolish to risk their lives, they will need some self-justifications: Claim that masks impair their breathing, deny that the pandemic is serious, or protest that their “freedom” to do what they want is paramount. “You’re removing our freedoms and stomping on our constitutional rights by these Communist-dictatorship orders,” a woman at a Palm Beach County commissioners’ hearing said. “Masks are literally killing people,” said another. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, referring to masks and any other government interventions, said, “More freedom, not more government, is the answer.” Vice President Mike Pence added his own justification for encouraging people to gather in unsafe crowds for a Trump rally: “The right to peacefully assemble is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

Do follow the link above. The authors go on to discuss ways that leaders have pushed back against the dissonance mechanism.

Part of the reason that it’s so hard for people to walk away from the harmful rationalizations they create is the “sunk cost fallacy”. At some point people figure they’ve already sunk so much of their time or social capital into a set of irrational beliefs that they are unable to walk away without incurring pain. It’s the fear of the pain of rethinking their position (Gk: Metanoia, Eng: Repent) that seems to trap them in their wrong direction (sin).

Perhaps faith leaders have something to say in all this.