By Matt Doran
My social media posts typically fall well behind the news cycle (if they even make to publication). Rather than retweeting and linking to articles about the issue du jour, I try to use social media platforms in educative ways that promote contemplation and reflection.
One question many have recently asked: How is it that seemingly decent people justify and rationalize fundamentally deplorable policies and leaders? The psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance helps us understand why individuals will often "explain away" the indefensible. Cognitive dissonance refers the mental discomfort that results from contradictory beliefs, or when our beliefs run contrary to our behaviors (especially in light of new evidence). We seek consistency in our attitudes and perceptions. When what we believe is challenged, something must change in order to reduce the dissonance (lack of agreement).
The need for dissonance reduction is especially acute when it involves beliefs about the self. Everyone wants to believe they are fundamentally good people who make good decisions (about health, finances, politics, etc). But sometimes the evidence mounts against us. In government and politics, this happens when parties and leaders engage in actions and policies that violate clear moral and ethical boundaries. To reduce the dissonance, supporters must change a belief--either I'm not so good at making decisions after all, or the actions/policies are justified.
Aesop's fable, the Fox and the Grapes, helps illustrate cognitive dissonance. The Fox noticed a beautiful bunch of ripe grapes hanging from a high vine. After multiple attempts to jump for the grapes, the Fox fell short. He finally concludes that the sour grapes are not worth it after all. Clearly, the Fox believed two things: the grapes are desirable and he had the ability to reach them. But when the evidence showed the falsity of his belief about himself, the Fox reduces the dissonance by rationalizing that the grapes really aren't so desirable.
Here's a good explanation of cognitive dissonance: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cognitive-dissonance-2795012