Cognitive Dissonance and the Tea Bagger Phenomenon
Concept: Cognitive Dissonance
In 1957, Leon Festinger published a theory of cognitive dissonance, which has changed the way psychologists look at decision-making and behavior. At its heart, cognitive dissonance theory is rather simple. It begins with the idea of cognitions. Cognitions are simply bits of knowledge. They can pertain to any variety of thoughts, values, facts, or emotions. For instance, the fact that I like ice cream is a cognition. So is the fact that I am a man. People have countless cognitions in their heads.
Most cognitions have nothing to do with each other. For instance, the two cognitions mentioned before (that I am a man and that I like ice cream) are unrelated. Some cognitions, however, are related. For instance, perhaps I have a sweet tooth and I like ice cream. These cognitions are "consonant," meaning that they are related and that one follows from the other. They go together, so to speak.However, sometimes we have cognitions that are related, but do not follow from one another. In fact, they may be opposites. For instance, perhaps I like ice cream, but I am also trying to lose weight. These two thoughts are problematic -- if I eat ice cream, then I may gain weight, and if I really want to lose weight then I cannot eat ice cream. These types of cognitions are referred to as "dissonant."
The basic idea behind cognitive dissonance theory is that people do not like to have dissonant cognitions. In fact, many people argue that the desire to have consonant cognitions is as strong as our basic desires for food and shelter. As a result, when someone does experience two or more dissonant cognitions (or conflicting thoughts), they will attempt to do away with the dissonance.
This week has yielded a bushel (or two) of research on the political ecology of the Tea Party, Republicans. Not surprisingly, they have minimal knowledge of actual government policies, are ill informed on the issues which they ostensibly care about, are immersed in the Fox News, Right-wing echo chamber, and simultaneously want "the government out of their lives" while also wanting the government to improve their lives.
Question: Are the Tea Party members A) Dumb or B) StupidIn helping you to reach a conclusion, I offer this piece from the Washington Monthly which nicely sums up the less than cogent thinking of the typical Tea Bagger:
UNAWARE OF THE CONTRADICTION.... There's an old joke that goes something like this: my neighbor went to public schools before joining the military. He went to college on the G.I. Bill, bought his first home through the FHA, and received his health care through the V.A. and Medicare. He now receives Social Security.
He's a conservative because he wants to get the government off his back.
I mention the joke because a surprising number of right-wing activists don't seem to appreciate the humor. We talked the other day, for example, about a radical libertarian activist who encourages his allies to throw bricks through the windows of Democratic offices to protest the Affordable Care Act. He hates government involvement in the lives of citizens -- but his main income is taxpayer-financed disability checks sent to him every month by the federal government.
This is not uncommon. The NYT reports today on some of the well-intention folks who've been caught up in the Tea Party nonsense. Take Tom Grimes, for example.
In the last year, he has organized a local group and a statewide coalition, and even started a "bus czar" Web site to marshal protesters to Washington on short notice. This month, he mobilized 200 other Tea Party activists to go to the local office of the same congressman to protest what he sees as the government's takeover of health care. [...]
"If you quit giving people that stuff, they would figure out how to do it on their own," Mr. Grimes said.
When Grimes lost his job 15 months ago, one of his first steps was contacting his congressman about available programs that might give him access to government health care. He receives Social Security, and is considering a job opening at the Census Bureau. But in the meantime, Grimes has filled the back seat of his Mercury Grand Marquis with literature decrying government aid to struggling Americans.
The same article noted the efforts of Diana Reimer, considered a "star" right-wing activist in her efforts against government programs, a campaign she describes as her "mission." Reimer, of course, currently enjoys Social Security and the socialized medicine that comes with Medicare.
The cognitive dissonance is rather remarkable. They perceive the government as the source of their economic distress -- which itself doesn't make sense -- and then rely on the government to give them a hand, all the while demanding that the government do less to give people a hand. Their reflexive hatred for public programs is so irrational, they don't even see the contradiction.
"After a year of angry debate," the Times article noted, "emotion outweighs fact."
That's no doubt true. But that doesn't change the fact that we're talking about a reasonably large group of people who are deeply, tragically misguided.
This is important to the extent that there are still some who believe the political mainstream should do more to listen to the Tea Party crowd and take its hysterical cries seriously. But how can credible people take nonsense seriously and hope to come up with a meaningful result? How can policymakers actually address substantive challenges while following the advice of angry mobs who reject reason and evidence?
The bottom line seem inescapable: too many Tea Party activists have no idea what they're talking about. Their sincerity notwithstanding, this is a confused group of misled people.