Ronald J. Krotoszynski, Jr.: States are using the pandemic to roll back Americans’ rights
Today, as we confront the many unknowns of the coronavirus pandemic, all of us are facing desperately difficult decisions. When is it safe to get back to work? When can I reopen my business? When can I see friends and co-workers, start a new love affair, travel? What level of risk am I prepared to tolerate? The way we answer these questions has momentous implications for our health as individuals and for the health of our communities. 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?
Although it’s difficult, changing our minds is not impossible. The challenge is to find a way to live with uncertainty, make the most informed decisions we can, and modify them when the scientific evidence dictates—as our leading researchers are already doing. 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.
Understanding how dissonance operates reveals a few practical lessons for overcoming it, starting by examining the two dissonant cognitions and keeping them separate. We call this the “Shimon Peres solution.” Peres, Israel’s former prime minister, was angered by his friend Ronald Reagan’s disastrous official visit to a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where members of the Waffen SS were buried. When asked how he felt about Reagan’s decision to go there, Peres could have reduced dissonance in one of the two most common ways: thrown out the friendship or minimized the seriousness of the friend’s action. He did neither. “When a friend makes a mistake,” he said, “the friend remains a friend, and the mistake remains a mistake.” Peres’s message conveys the importance of staying with the dissonance, avoiding easy knee-jerk responses, and asking ourselves, Why am I believing this? Why am I behaving this way? Have I thought it through or am I simply taking a short cut, following the party line, or justifying the effort I put in to join the group?
Dissonance theory also teaches us why changing your brother-in-law’s political opinions is so hard, if not impossible—especially if he has thrown time, money, effort, and his vote at them. (He can’t change yours either, can he?) But if you want to try, 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 (I’m smart versus You say I’m doing something stupid), making him almost certainly respond with defensiveness and a hardening of the belief (I was thinking how smart I am, that’s what, and masks are useless anyway). However, your brother-in-law may be more amenable to messages from others who share his party loyalty but who have changed their mind, such as the growing number of prominent Republicans now wearing masks. Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee said, “Unfortunately, this simple, lifesaving practice has become part of a political 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.”
Read: There’s no going back to ‘normal’
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 Trump is waiting, for the “miracle” of the virus disappearing.