Hindsight No. 4: Denial and Dissonance

Hindsight for Monday, February 7, 2022

(Image from contemplativestudies.org)

I FIRST heard the phrase “cognitive dissonance” fifty years ago in UP from my friend Jose “Oying” Rimon, then a Mass Comm major just grasping the mechanics of social behavior. Oying would go on to become a population expert and close adviser to Bill and Melinda Gates on public health, capacities in which he had many occasions to see cognitive dissonance at work in shaping people’s attitudes and responses to development policy. 

I’m not a psychologist, so I’m going to have a real one, Dr. Sam Mcleod, explain what the concept means: “Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance…. When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.” 

The examples that usually turn up in the literature are fairly simple: you smoke, but know that smoking is bad for you; you know you need more exercise, but put it off for tomorrow, citing the workload on your desk.

Why is this relevant to our present situation? I’ll get to that in a minute. First, let me quote from an article by Dr. Eddie Harmon-Jones in Psychology Today wondering why so many Christian Americans still voted for and supported Donald Trump despite his patently un-Christian behaviors, such as adultery. “As president, he has engaged in many actions that seem immoral. How do so many still support him? Surely they must experience dissonance over this. How do they reduce this dissonance?” (For that matter, why did so many conservative Fil-Ams vote for Trump on the excuse that he was supposedly “pro-life,” ignoring his many other moral infirmities?)

Why do people believe what they want to believe, regardless of the hard facts and figures in front of them? How do they reconcile these contradictions in their minds to feel like they’re doing the right thing and to feel better about themselves? (The science suggests that we humans have a natural impulse toward feeling good.)

This is what the psychologists call reducing or resolving dissonance—accepting or acknowledging what the more logical part of your brain is saying, but then coming up with a rationalization or justification for sticking to your original belief anyway; or, with much more effort, you find a reason to cross over to the other side. Sure, smoking is bad for me, but so is anxiety; sure, maybe vaccines work for other people, but I’m not like other people—I haven’t been sick in twenty years; sure, I lied on my tax declaration—but haven’t bigger people done much worse?

Dissonance is a shade different from denial, which is the outright rejection of proven or provable fact. Holocaust deniers will insist it never happened; other neo-Nazis will say it did, but that the Jews brought it upon themselves, or that Hitler wasn’t to blame for the genocide. 

This is the stuff that conspiracies and conspiracy theories are made of—a little truth here and a little truth there, interwoven by threads of fanciful fabrications to create some semblance of alternative logic. Spun imaginatively and cast widely enough, this web of lies can begin to acquire the sheen of truth, or what passes for it among its believers.

Are those believers stupid or crazy? Not necessarily. An interesting paper by the psychologist Andrea Kohn Maikovich argues that terrorists aren’t simply the hate-filled loonies they’re often pictured to be. Rather, recruits go through a radicalization process during which they negotiate between their personal predisposition not to commit violence and the collective pressure to do more than carry placards on the street. When the dissonance hits its peak, some leave; those who stay have found a way to convince themselves that violence is good and necessary.

Writing for the Atlantic Monthly on “The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic,” Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris note that “When people feel a strong connection to a political party, leader, ideology, or belief, they are more likely to let that allegiance do their thinking for them and distort or ignore the evidence that challenges those loyalties. The social psychologist Lee Ross, in laboratory experiments designed to find ways to reduce the bitter conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, took peace proposals created by Israeli negotiators, labeled them as Palestinian proposals, and asked Israeli citizens to judge them. ‘The Israelis liked the Palestinian proposal attributed to Israel more than they liked the Israeli proposal attributed to the Palestinians,’ he told us.”

In this context, it isn’t hard to see why pro-Marcos narratives can seem so compelling to many Filipinos, despite the clear and documented evidence of ill-gotten wealth (let’s say it plainly: theft), brutality, deception, and other abuses of power during the martial law years. They’re rich and powerful—which we all want to be—so they must have done something right.

People who are already rich don’t steal; it wasn’t FM Sr. who committed martial law’s excesses, but his administrators; EDSA 1 was nothing but a CIA operation; Imelda was never imprisoned, so she can’t be guilty of any charges thrown at her; the younger Marcoses knew nothing about what was going on, and so will be different from their parents; if the Marcoses were bad, the Aquinos and Lopezes are worse; et cetera. If you feel comfortable with any of these ideas, then you’ve made your own kind of sense of the past, even if you may not even have been there.

Of course, I have my own set of stubborn core beliefs and dissonances as well. I keep holding on to the idea that Filipinos are worth dying for, only to be disappointed by the way many of us choose our leaders. I believe in democracy, but I feel frustrated when it’s gamed by people who obviously don’t care much about it. 

According to cognitive dissonance theory, something has to give: your cherished notions, or the hard truth. It seems much easier just to give up hope, but there’s no real comfort nor resolution in that, either.

1 thought on “Hindsight No. 4: Denial and Dissonance

  1. There’s the hope to some. Or the hopelessness to some. Or the hills to others. A Marcos Jr. presidency could be the denial that would sire a tsunami of Pinoy dissonances–not the election-campaign advertised unity.

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