Friday, November 22, 2013

How Right Wing Propaganda Causes Cognitive Dissonance in the Conservative Brain

We continue our series this week on The Psychology of Conservatism with another twofer, a short article by Chris Mooney writing for Mother Jones, "Are Conservatives More Likely Than Liberals to Avoid Cognitive Dissonance?," and a longer article by Ilyssa Fuchs at, "How Right Wing Propaganda Causes Cognitive Dissonance in the Conservative Brain."

"The Fox and the Grapes" by Aesop. When the fox fails to reach the grapes, he decides he does not want them after all. Rationalization (making excuses) is often involved in reducing anxiety about conflicting cognitions, according to cognitive dissonance theory.

Cognitive dissonances is defined by Wikipedia in their fascinating entry on the subject as "...the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel "disequilibrium": frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, etc.[1] The phrase was coined by Leon Festinger in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, which chronicled the followers of a UFO cult as reality clashed with their fervent belief in an impending apocalypse.[2][3] Festinger subsequently (1957) published a book called A Theory of Cognitive Dissonancein which he outlines the theory. Cognitive dissonance is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.

"The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.[1]Cognitive dissonance is the distressing mental state that people feel when they 'find themselves doing things that don't fit with what they know, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold.'[4] A key assumption is that people want their expectations to meet reality, creating a sense of control.[5] Likewise, another assumption is that a person will avoid situations or information sources that give rise to feelings of uneasiness, or dissonance.[1]

"Cognitive dissonance theory explains human behavior by positing that people have a bias to seek consonance between their expectations and reality. According to Festinger, people engage in a process he termed "dissonance reduction," which can be achieved in one of three ways: lowering the importance of one of the discordant factors, adding consonant elements, or changing one of the dissonant factors.[6] This bias sheds light on otherwise puzzling, irrational, and even destructive behavior."

Now, on to Mooney's article:

"Ever since Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger's pioneering work on doomsday cults in the 1950s, the concept of cognitive dissonance has been well established in psychology and even, to some extent, embedded in public consciousness. Basically, when the mind is faced with an idea that is threatening to one's identity or sense of self—an idea that induces unpleasant dissonance—one tends to try to either avoid the thought or, perhaps, reinterpret it into something unthreatening or positive. Thus, in Festinger's landmark work, a doomsday cult interpreted the failure of the world to end on the precise day they had predicted as evidence that their beliefs were right in the first place!

"But do liberals and conservatives differ in their tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance? Suggestive evidence from past research suggests they might. For instance, a study of voters in the 2000 election by Stanford public opinion specialist Shanto Iyengar and his colleagues found that although Republicans and conservatives were more interested in learning information about George W. Bush than about Al Gore, Democratic and liberal voters had no such political preference.

"In a recent study in PLOS One, an online academic journal, the psychologist Jay Van Bavel and his colleagues at New York University set out to explicitly test whether conservatives are more likely than liberals to avoid the unsettling sensation of cognitive dissonance. For the experiment, they asked George W. Bush and Barack Obama supporters to write an essay supporting the president whom they had already said they opposed. It was a test, as the study's instructions instructions put it, of "the ability to craft logical arguments arguing positions you may not personally endorse."

"Importantly, the study sometimes presented writing the essay as a choice—which is more likely to arouse dissonance—and other times presented it as an assignment. As a control, the participants were put through the same routine by being asked to write essays on a nonpolitical issue: How they felt about Macs vs. PCs.

"Sure enough, the results yielded a significant partisan difference in the willingness to write the essay—but only when the essay was political (not about Macs vs. PCs) and only when writing it was presented a choice, not an assignment. In that context, the results were rather stunning: Not a single Bush supporter was willing to write a pro-Obama essay. That's 0 out of 28 Bush supporters overall. Obama supporters didn't like writing pro Bush essays much either, but they were a lot more willing in general: 20 out of 71 did so, or 28 percent overall. (The study sample, obtained through's Mechanical Turk, contained more liberals than conservatives.)

"In fact, some conservatives sounded rather miffed after taking the study, leaving comments like: 'Not for all the tea in China would I write that.' In contrast, note the study authors, some liberals seemed to revel in the assignment. 'This was fun!' as one put it.

"The same finding arose—but less sharply—in a second study, when the presidents involved were Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, rather than Bush and Obama. Here, 13 out of 58 Clinton supporters—or 22 percent—wrote essays supporting Reagan, whereas just 3 out of 30—or 10 percent—of Reagan fans bothered to extoll Clinton. (The authors hypothesized that the response might have been different in this case because both former presidents are now quite well regarded, their reputations much more insulated from the partisanship of the current political moment.)

"Like responsible scientists, the study authors noted factors other than the obvious one that could have contributed to their results—e.g., maybe liberals just enjoy the opportunity to be devil's advocates more than conservatives do. Or maybe it's really true (as much other research suggests) that the left-right divide reflects a deeper divide in psychology.

"Liberals and conservatives did look almost identical when they were required to write the dissonance-inducing essay, rather than having a choice about the matter. When people are required to think positively about their political foes, they will, says NYU's Van Bavel. It isn't impossible, then—just something that happens far too rarely."

And now to the second piece at Forward Progressives:

"For me, running a political Facebook page often has the consequence of getting into long drawn out debates with people. I feel obligated to stand behind what I personally post on Politically Preposterous, to interact and debate with fans (time permitting), and to make corrections if I get something factually wrong. I know this may be hard for some of you to believe in this world of internet disinformation and partisan divide, but some of us actually have integrity. Don’t just take my word for it though, check the proof.

"Back in May, I wrote an article in which I wrongly stated that illegal wiretapping of phones had occurred. Subsequently, a fan pointed out that my assertion was incorrect because the issue was not about wiretapping (which implies physically listening in on calls) but rather about the collection of records. After this was pointed out to me I immediately contacted my editor and requested that we change both the text and the title of the article, and that we post a correction at the bottom of the article. That, my friends, is called journalistic integrity. It also means that when I make an assertion of fact I check it and double check it to make sure I got it right. Further, if I make a mistake and get something wrong, I immediately take steps to correct the error.

"On the other hand, as Rachel Maddow once said, 'I will not apologize if I do not get something wrong,' and like Rachel, neither will I. Some people just have a hard time believing the facts, and honestly I just can’t help those that choose to live in the delusional bubble. However, I should also note that although I will correct an assertion I made if I got the facts wrong, I will not 'correct' my opinion just because someone disagrees with it; albeit if they make a good enough argument they may be able to persuade me to change or at least question my opinion. Though this is exceedingly rare, it does happen on occasion.

"Moving on…

"I apologize for the lengthy preface but it provided the context for what I am going to say next, since my feelings on this matter stem directly from my debates with people who have a cognitive dissonance towards the facts. This is what happens when people choose to live in their rhetorical right wing bubble for so long. They refuse to digest the facts on a certain situation or issue, choosing instead to feed off of the propaganda that’s been carefully readied for the airwaves on Fox News or AM radio.

"I just feel bad for those that see the trees, but don’t seem to see the forest. Though truth be told, I feel worse for those who I try to show the forest to, but who are too closed minded and therefore refuse to see past the trees.

"By way of example:

"Middle or lower class people who vote for the Republican party because they claim to be the party of less taxes, when really the only tax breaks they give are to the rich and wealthy and to large corporations. People who would rather see all welfare recipients be drug tested when only 2% of people on welfare use drugs. People who bitch about those collecting welfare being unemployed when the majority of those collecting welfare have jobs (often at places like Wal-Mart that engage in wage theft practices and force the taxpayers to fund their bottom line). People who complain about welfare when most of the welfare given out is to large corporations through subsidies and tax breaks. People who claim to be for Constitutional rights but think we should implement unconstitutional policies like 20 week abortion bans, drug testing for welfare and voter ID laws. For the record, the reason all of the things I mentioned previously are hyper-linked, is so you can go look for yourself that I am asserting facts — not making up falsities like is often the norm online, and unfortunately sometimes the norm for certain mainstream media outlets as well. Remember how Fox News was 'certain' Mitt Romney was going to win reelection last year? We all know how that turned out – and how 'shocked' they were afterward.

"Continuing on, people who claim that the government shouldn’t 'tread on them' while advocating for intrusive government policies. People who claim to be pro-life (rather than calling themselves anti-abortion) but who favor the death penalty. People who consistently vote against their own economic interests. People who go off on welfare recipients needing the government, but then complain about not getting their student aid. People who insist climate change isn’t real or wasn’t cause by human activity, despite the fact that 97% of scientists agree that it is real and was caused by humans. People who are pro-life, but who will openly advocate getting rid of programs like WIC that keep children from starving to death after they are born. People who say they support our deployed troops but then vote for politicians whose goal is to defund food stamps even though $100 million dollars worth of SNAP (food stamp) benefits go to military members every year.

"The point is, the people who believe the facts I listed above are false, who claim that these are just 'liberal excuses,' and/or who think that the numbers couldn’t possibly be right because of what they personally observe in their neighborhood(s), are merely seeing the trees. In fact, sometimes I think they only see the leaves and fail to see the trees or the forest. But, worse, are the people who you try to show the forest to, in an attempt to bring them up to speed, but who would rather kick and scream and call you a liar then being open minded about what you have to say. For the record, this goes for those to the left on the political spectrum as well. While I find that most of the people on the right these days have been deluded and lied to so much by the right wing media that they can’t discern the truth from the lies, every once in a while I come across what I would call an 'Eisenhower conservative' who makes some good points. On that note, I think it’s important that progressives be open minded to reasonable and factually based conservative arguments – in order to prevent the left and center-left from falling into the same cycle as our right wing counterparts – even if in the end we still disagree.

"Also, since I just mentioned that progressives need to be open minded as well, I know it is now inevitable that someone in the comments is going to say something like, 'but what about you liberals who don’t understand the words "shall not be infringed?"' Thus, I figure I will just tackle this one briefly. The examples I cited before of unconstitutional policies are unconstitutional because a court has ruled them unconstitutional, not just because I said they were. On the other hand, the Supreme Court in D.C. v. Heller, explicitly stated that certain restrictions on the 2nd Amendment are permissible when they stated,
"'Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues.' 
"'Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment , nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.'
"So to be frank, if you write something in the comments regarding this issue you just prove that either (a) you don’t know how to read, (b) you know how to read but not how to comprehend, or (c) you are suffering from the same cognitive dissonance illness that many on the right are suffering from. My advice to you, either open your mind up a little and see the truth, or move along, since I am not going to waste my time and energy trying to get you to understand.

"In closing, people on both sides of the political coin need to keep an open mind to reasonable and factually based arguments and need to do a better job of seeing the entire forest, rather than just the trees. But, all too often it appears that only seeing the trees (and only wanting to see the trees) is the conservative way."


We'll continue with more in this vein tomorrow...


"Stupidity, outrage, vanity, cruelty, iniquity, bad faith, falsehood - we fail to see the
whole array when it is facing in the same direction as we."

Jean Rostand. (French biologist and philosopher. 1894 – 1977.)