Cognitive Dissonance: Why Political Discussions Turn Nasty

If you’re like me, your social media has been populated lately with commentary using emotional appeals to get people to change their vote for President, with a combination of scare tactics to vote for Clinton or Trump in order to vote against the other and stubborn posts about the lesser of two evils still being evil (Lincoln, the last President to have been elected from an under-established party, has shown up a few times).

There’s a reason there are rules about not talking politics and religion in mixed gatherings: These tend to be emotionally-laden subjects, where reason quickly cedes ground to verbal (or actual) fisticuffs. But why?

One reason is a mix of cognitive dissonance and how we’ve set our political system up. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when we hold two competing value-based assessments or behaviors. For instance, several of the Founding Fathers openly felt that slavery was morally wrong while continuing to own slaves: This is a cognitively dissonant behavior. In George Washington’s case, he apparently resolved it by freeing his own slaves upon his death. This act didn’t deprive him of any of the benefits of his own slave-owning, but it allowed him to believe that he was working to end the practice.

We can resolve cognitive dissonance one of two basic ways: Change one of the assessments or behaviors causing the dissonance, or reinterpreting to rationalize why there’s no dissonance in the first place. An example of rationalizing when it comes to slavery, for instance, is the common argument recently used by Bill O’Reilly that the slaves were generally treated well and content with their situation.

Unresolved cognitive dissonance is a source of significant mental stress, and can lead to aggression and other forms of nonconstructive interaction. However, most of the time, we have a choice of a wide array of beliefs and a wide array of actions. We can hone our beliefs to be as simplistic or nuanced as we please, so it’s easy to come up with loopholes and rationalizations.


In politics, and especially in our two-party system, this is far more difficult. We have a “whole package” mindset; some areas even have a “straight ticket” ballot option where we don’t even need to think about individual candidates. If you’re a Democrat, you can just vote for all the Democrats, up and down the ballot. Ditto, if you’re a Republican (or any other party on the ballot).

So, if you happen to feel that Hillary Clinton is the best choice for President, what happens if you don’t support her consistent hawkishness? Personally, I assume she’ll continue or even intensify Obama’s war-minded foreign policy, which I’m opposed to. I feel disappointed in Obama in that regard. Or what if you happen to feel that Donald Trump is truly committed to reversing the flow of manual labor jobs to other countries, but you don’t like his bigotry against Muslims and Mexicans?

In a perspective that supporting a candidate means supporting all of the candidate’s positions, it’s very difficult. Cognitive dissonance comes into play, and one of the first ways of resolving cognitive dissonance for many people is to attack the source of that dissonance.

The source of that dissonance can be somebody else simply pointing it out. “You can’t be progressive if you support Hillary Clinton”: This is a threat to identity, and it’s not surprising that some people respond to such threats through anger.

This year is particularly troublesome, because the two major party candidates for President are both mediocre-at-best representatives of their parties. While Clinton may hold some liberal attitudes, her enacted policies are generally right-leaning moderate, particularly on things like national defense and the economy. Trump is far enough off the mainstream Republican track that the two living Republican ex-Presidents have refused to endorse him, as have numerous key Republican politicians.


Half-hearted supporters of each candidate, then, have to deal with the conflict between “I vote for my values” and “I have to keep evil out.” Supporters of candidates for other parties, such as Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, have a similar conflict, but then are also faced with the bullying from their friends about wasted votes and (e.g.) “a vote for Stein is a vote for Trump.”

We could, of course, have reasonable discussions about differences of opinion. But the “all or nothing” support mindset, coupled with the power of cognitive dissonance, gets in the way of that. When we assume that a supporter of Donald Trump supports everything about him, we feed that wall; ditto for Hillary Clinton, or Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, or any other political candidate or party. Just because I’m a Democrat, that doesn’t mean I support everything on the platform; just because I’m progressive doesn’t mean I can’t feel that Clinton is the best overall choice for President, out of those available.


So my advice here is two-fold: First, let’s stop acting like “I support John Smith for Congressperson” is the same thing as “I think that every value held and every action committed by John Smith is acceptable.” Even if there were a thousand candidates, it would be impossible to find one that is utterly unimpeachable. If you know somebody to be supporting Trump because of his bigotry and his callous comments towards his perceived enemies, by all means, judge them harshly for that. If you know somebody to be supporting Clinton because of the work she did as First Lady of painting urban blacks as “Superpredators” and building the prison industrial complex, that’s definitely something to be judgmental over.

Second, let’s keep the power of cognitive dissonance in mind when talking politics with others. This election year even more than most, the two major party choices leave a lot to be desired. I see people putting a lot of emotional stock in either defending their choice to stick with Clinton or Trump, or in supporting a dark horse Third Party candidate. When information comes out that challenges that position, they’re likely to be hostile and argumentative. Be sensitive to that.

The more we know about why people hold to ideas, the more effective we’ll be at helping them to change.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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