April 01, 2008

The Democratic Campaign and Cognitive Dissonance

As a passionate Democrat who is convinced if we do not rid ourselves of the toxic administration and the attendant authoritarian right-wing conservatives associated with it, we and the world are doomed, I find the current Democratic campaign simply intolerable.

Today as I was working though my ambivalence, I thought over about what I've been reading and my many conversations about the campaign with friends, and I finally realized why this campaign has started to feel so wrong and so destructive. It all comes to our very human failing of rationalizing that what we do and believe is right and good and then thinking that anyone who questions us in that assumption is in effect destroying our own sense of being a good and reasonable person. In other words, it's our old friend cognitive dissonance making an appearance.

cognitivedissonance.jpg

Recently I read a wonderful book called Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aranson which I've been meaning to review. It is a truly one of the best books I've read on the theory of cognitive dissonance - the theory which explains about how we humans rationalize our decisions and actions and what comes of that if we are not able to question or revise our decisions or actions.

What the authors do so brilliantly is to show that this is not just a phenomena that is found in Bush supporters or the right-wing authoritarians, but is something to which we all are susceptible. Indeed, the problem is we all to want to believe we are good, moral and rational people, and whatever we end up doing is justified because of that.

Let me give you just one passage from the book to demonstrate what is happening here.

Spirals of Violence -- and Virtue

Feeling stressed? One Internet source teaches you how to make your own little Damn It Doll, which "can be thrown, jabbed, stomped and even strangled till all the frustration leaves you." A little poem goes with it:

When you want to kick the desk or throw the phone and shout
Here's a little damnit doll you cannot do without.
Just grasp it firmly by the legs, and find a place to slam it.
And as you whack its stuffing out, yell, "damnit, damnit, damnit!"

The Damn It Doll reflects one of the most entrenched convictions in our culture, fostered by the psychoanalytic belief in the benefits of catharsis: that expressing anger or behaving aggressively gets rid of anger. Throw that doll, hit a punching bag, shout at your spouse; you'll feel better afterward. Actually, decades of experimental research have found exactly the opposite: that when people vent their feelings aggressively they often feel worse, pump up their blood pressure, and make themselves even angrier.

Venting is especially likely to backfire if a person commits an aggressive act against another person directly, which is exactly what cognitive dissonance theory would predict. When you do anything that harms someone else -- get them in trouble, verbally abuse them, or punch them out -- a powerful new factor comes into play: the need to justify what you did. Take a boy who goes along with a group of his fellow seventh graders who are taunting and bullying a weaker kid who did them no harm. The boy likes being part of the gang but his heart really isn't in the bullying. later, he feels some dissonance about what he did. "How can a decent kid like me," he wonders, "have done such a cruel thing to a nice, innocent little kid like him?" To reduce dissonance, he will try to convince himself that the victim is neither nice nor innocent: "He is such a nerd and cry-baby. Besides, he would have done the same to me if he had the chance." Once the boy starts down the path of blaming the victim, he becomes more likely to beat up on the victim with even greater ferocity the next change he gets. Justifying his first hurtful act sets the stage for more aggression. That's why the catharsis hypothesis is wrong. (pp, 25-27)

In the book, they cover a number of areas such as the 1980s daycare trials (where people were prosecuted and locked away for decades on the testimony of young children who had had false memories implanted (albeit innocently) in them by psychologists convinced of the evil being done) and the cases of the prosecutors and police detectives who convicted innocent people and then could not admit that the person was innocent even when someone else confessed or when irrefutable proof was found that the person was innocent.

Then Tavris and Aronson go on to talk about the most mundane of matters: divorce and family feuds.

Who of us has not witnessed a couple who seemed such a nice couple but when they went for the divorce, the situation escalated into full-scale warfare? How could these two people who once declared to love each other, treat each other like this? Well, the answer is: cognitive dissonance. The pain and accusations come from having to convince yourself and your allies that the other person is a horrific cad. Now, there are some cases where the other person is a horrific cad, but way too many of these situations erupt because human beings have to justify why they hurt someone else and they don't feel right about it.

So, today, I realized that this primary campaign feels like what I've felt before when I'm talking to friends who are having a horrible divorce, yet I really like and respect them both. As Tavris and Aranson point out, healthy relationships can allow for differences of opinion or even divorce without spiraling into these terribly destructive and fruitless arguments. They say it means "letting go and owning up." If we are to get beyond these soul-destroying arguments (who is a better human being and who's a monster), then we need to start understanding our own part in the argument, and we need to start giving the other guy the benefit of the doubt. It's time to Walk a Mile in his or her shoes.

And I will say the first thing that all of us liberal Democrats who really care about the outcomes must do, is ask, why should that person (my candidate's opponent) not get the benefit of doubt or at least some the assumption that they are in the campaign for good and noble reasons? And why spend so much tearing down the other candidate after you know how damaging these emotions are for you? Not one of our candidates is perfect (but then again neither am I nor are you), so let's make sure we don't feed into the emotionally toxic systems that will destroy even us (good people that we are) in our pursuit of getting rid of the current gang. Truly in this case, as Votaire says, we must not allow the perfect to become the enemy of good. Nothing will condemn humankind more than letting the war-mongers and know-nothings hold on to the White House for Four More Years. Both our candidates know that, but do you?

Not only does giving that other person the benefit of the doubt help my relationship with them, but it allows me to admit that I too am not perfect and not to be so rigid that I can't admit when I'm wrong. Thankfully, it is good to realize that when we stay open to the possibility of being wrong, we'll have much better chance of resetting our path and making amends when it is the right thing to do. And besides, because this is such an important election, I'm planning to vote for the Democratic candidate (whether they were my favored candidate or not). Hopefully you feel the same.

Posted by Mary at April 1, 2008 02:29 AM | Philosophy | Technorati links |
Comments

Humans are not rational creatures, they are rationalizing creatures. Lazarus Long

Posted by: Ten Bears at April 1, 2008 10:00 AM

At its worst, the 'catharsis' hypothesis becomes indistinguishable from Franz Fanon's belief that political violence has therapeutic value for the oppressed. Some bad ideas are surprisingly well thought out.


Posted by: Huskarl at April 1, 2008 03:07 PM

The problem is that we don't understand the difference between opponents and enemies.

My two bits....

Posted by: palamedes at April 1, 2008 04:07 PM

Context: I am very concerned that the dem sups will _steal_ the election from the candidate chosen by the people.

Dilemma: If that happens, do I allow the situation you describe: "Nothing will condemn humankind more than letting the war-mongers and know-nothings hold on to the White House for Four More Years."

I lean strongly toward a YES answer, because if that happens, then those corrupt dems need to be put down, and I _hope_ a more progressive group will arise. I certainly won't be able to tolerate the status quo (dems who will be just as ineffective as they have so far shown themselves to be).

I am well aware that I have made a series ("pyramid", ref. Tavris and Aronson) of choices over the course of my life that have lead me to this position. My recognition that I may have "foolish beliefs" compels me to post.

What do you think?

Posted by: de novo at April 2, 2008 09:12 PM