There was something particularly infuriating about Mitt Romney’s concession speech. He’s clearly a smart guy – once upon a time, he was a socially moderate, pragmatic Republican – and yet the address was filled with utter nonsense like this:
Europe is facing a demographic disaster. That’s the inevitable product of weakened faith in the Creator, failed families, disrespect for the sanctity of human life, and eroded morality…
It’s time for the people of America to fortify marriage through a constitutional amendment, so that liberal judges cannot continue to attack it…
Today we are a nation at war. And Barack and Hillary have made their intentions clear regarding Iraq and the war on terror: They would retreat, declare defeat.
And the consequence of that would be devastating. It would mean attacks on America, launched from safe havens that would make Afghanistan under the Taliban look like child’s play. About this, I have no doubt.
Politicians tend to pander, especially during the primary season. Romney’s chief opponent, Rudy Giuliani, also has a history as a pro-gun-control, pro-gay-rights Republican. But while Giuliani simply downplays his record on those issues, Romney sells himself as a true convert. He not only shifts positions; he often claims to be the most passionate advocate of his new stances. It’s one of the reasons that his metamorphosis from liberal Republican to committed right-winger seems so jarring.
Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. Romney clearly has some dissonance going on in his brain – he has switched positions on everything from abortion to immigration – and yet his response to this dissonance is to double-down, to assert his certainty. For instance, Romney didn’t just campaign on keeping Guantanamo open, he wanted to double the size of the prison. Not even Dick Cheney wants that.
The first scientist to identify this important psychological process was Leon Festinger, a social psychologist at the University of Minnesota. In the summer of 1954, he was reading the morning newspaper when he encountered a short article about Marion Keech, a housewife in suburban Minneapolis who was convinced that the apocalypse was coming. Keech had started getting messages from aliens a few years before, but now the messages were getting eerily specific. According to Sananda, an extra-terrestrial from the planet Clarion who was in regular contact with Keech, human civilization would be destroyed by a massive flood at midnight on December 20, 1954.
Keech’s sci-fi prophecy soon gained a small band of followers. They trusted her divinations, and marked the date of Armageddon on their calendars. Many of them quit their jobs and sold their homes. The cultists didn’t bother buying Christmas presents or making arrangements for New Years Eve, since nothing would exist by then.
Festinger immediately realized that Keech would make a great research subject. He decided to infiltrate the group by pretending to be a true believer. What Festinger wanted to study was the reaction of the cultist on December 21, when the world wasn’t destroyed and no spaceship appeared. Would Keech recant? What would happen when her prophesy failed?
On the night of December 20, Keech’s followers gathered in her home and waited for instructions from the aliens. Midnight inexorably approached. When the clock read 12:01 and there were still no aliens, the cultists began to worry. A few began to cry. The aliens had let them down. But then Keech received a new telegram from outer space, which she quickly transcribed on her notepad. “This little group sitting all night long had spread so much light,” the aliens told her, “that god saved the world from destruction. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.” It was their stubborn faith that had prevented the apocalypse. Although Keech’s predictions had been falsified, the group was now more convinced than ever that the aliens were real. They began proselytizing to others, sending out press releases and recruiting new believers. This is how they reacted to the dissonance of being wrong: by being more sure than ever that they were right.