Cognitive dissonance, coined by Leon Festinger in the 1950s, describes the discomfort people feel when two cognitions, or a cognition and a behavior, contradict each other.
“I smoke” is dissonant with the knowledge that “Smoking can kill me.” To reduce that dissonance, the smoker must either quit or justify smoking (“It keeps me thin, and being overweight is a health risk too, you know”). 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, the cognition “I want to go back to work or go to my favorite bar” is dissonant with any information that suggests these actions might be dangerous.
How to resolve this dissonance? Claim that masks impair breathing, deny that the pandemic is serious, or protest that their “freedom” to do what they want is paramount. Dissonance theory also teaches that changing politically-based opinions is very hard, if not impossible, especially if time, money, effort, votes, or especially self-esteem have been invested in them.
As we confront the many unknowns of the coronavirus pandemic, all of us are facing desperately difficult decisions. Even more important, and far less obvious, is that because of the unconscious motivation to reduce dissonance, the way we answer these questions has repercussions for how we behave after making our initial decision: will we be flexible, or will we keep reducing dissonance by insisting that our earliest decisions were right?
The challenge is to find a way to live with uncertainty, make the most informed decisions we can, and modify them when the evidence dictates. Admitting we were wrong requires some self-reflection—which involves living with the dissonance for a while rather than jumping immediately to a self-justification. So don’t say the equivalent of “What are you thinking by not wearing a mask?” That message implies “How could you be so stupid?” and will immediately create dissonance.
Try more amenable messages, such as that of Republican senator Lamar Alexander: “This simple, lifesaving practice has become part of a debate that says: ‘If you’re for Trump, you don’t wear a mask; if you’re against Trump, you do?’ The stakes are much too high for that.”
This nasty, mysterious virus will require us all to change our minds as scientists learn more, and we may have to give up some practices and beliefs about it that we now feel sure of. The alternative will be to double down, ignore the error, and wait, as Donald Trump is waiting, for the “miracle” of the virus disappearing.