The Frontal Cortex

Cognitive Dissonance and Politics

Yesterday, we looked at some new research that found that when conservatives were exposed to evidence demonstrating the falsity of a partisan belief – such as a report demonstrating that Iraq didn’t have WMD, or that lowering taxes doesn’t increase government revenue – they became more convinced than ever that those beliefs were actually true. The scientists call this “the backfire effect”.

The researchers argue that conservatives are particularly vulnerable to this cognitive flaw, as their beliefs tend to be more rigid and immutable. But I’m not so sure. As a liberal partisan hack, I’m very aware of how my political biases distort my processing of information. I fixate on news that jives with my beliefs and tend to ignore those inconvenient facts that contradict my inner talking points.

This is a deeply human trait. One of the first scientists to really study this was Leon Festinger, a social psychologist at the University of Minnesota. In the summer of 1954, Festinger 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.

In other words, those members of the alien cult were just like conservatives learning that Iraq didn’t have WMD. They were so committed to their beliefs – they had so much invested in the idea that the world would end, or that Saddam had chemical weapons – that dissonant facts made them double-down. It would be too painful to be wrong, and so they convinced themselves that they were right.


  1. #1 pete
    September 16, 2008

    I’ve seen this in action many times over the years. I once saw Lilian Hellman in a TV interview defend Stalin against all those stories about the gulag. She could not believe that an intellectual like herself had been conned by a dictator, so it simple wasn’t true. I’ve called it for years the “Lilan Hellman Syndrome”, and yes, the current crop of conservatives is loaded with it.

  2. #2 Orac
    September 16, 2008

    I’d agree with you that this is not a problem limited to the right. Lately, I’ve been hearing all sorts of stranger rumors about Sarah Palin. One of these claims was that Palin tried to ban the Harry Potter books from the Wasilla library when she was mayor. The person in question was an academic surgeon. When it was pointed out that, no, it wasn’t the Harry Potter books but a book on homosexuality under question, and, no, she didn’t actually try to ban the book although she apparently did talk to the librarian about it, it didn’t matter.

  3. #3 Chelsea Roff
    September 16, 2008

    Great post! I’m a frequent reader, but I’ve never taken the time to comment on a post. I’m doing some research right now on cognitive dissonance, so I wanted to throw in my two cents.

    I think you’re correct when you assert that many of our politicians are experiencing a lot of cognitive dissonance. We have men and women who not only hold a particular belief, but have explicitly stated their attitudes in the public domain. Recent research from Eliot Aronson ( revealed the impact of public commitment on post-dissonance behavior. Individuals reminded of their of “hypocrisy” actually altered their behavior.

    Our politicians further solidified their commitment their beliefs with their voting and policy-making behaviors. Now, they’re not only experiencing dissonance between their first belief (“Saddaam Hussein has WMD”) and the evidence (“Saddaam never had WMD”), but also between cognitions about their behavior (“I voted for the war in Iraq because Saddaam has WMD”) and the evidence (“Saddaam never had WMD”). If you recall Festinger’s original theory, the greater the number of cognitions in conflict, the greater the magnitude of dissonance!

    What is more, the public is holding them personally responsible for the chaos we have in Iraq today. Cooper and Fazio’s “New Look” at cognitive dissonance theory postulated that dissonance is the result of the feeling personally responsible for an aversive event.

    Finally, research is showing that the magnitude of dissonance increases exponentially when it poses significant threat to an individual’s self-concept. Elliot Aronson argued that “if dissonance exists, the it is the result of cognitions inconsistent with the self-concept” (Aronson, 1968).

    So, political conservatives are probably not all too comfortable right now. It’s interesting to observe them from a psychological perspective… look at all the methods they’re utilizing to resolve this intense discomfort! Their bolstering their initial attitudes, trivializing contradictory evidence, attempting to shift responsibility to other parties, etc. I’m curious about the variables that determine what method individuals choose to reduce the dissonance. Why are do we have some politicians willing to re-evaluate their initial attitudes and others who desperately avoid confronting their own hypocrisy? Is it individual differences or does it involve the magnitude of dissonance the individual is experiencing?

    Sorry if I babbled too long. Great post; thanks for getting the ideas flowing!

  4. #4 mathyoo
    September 16, 2008

    Finally, research is showing that the magnitude of dissonance increases exponentially when it poses significant threat to an individual’s self-concept. Elliot Aronson argued that “if dissonance exists, the it is the result of cognitions inconsistent with the self-concept” (Aronson, 1968).

    This really makes sense to me. I don’t see cognitive dissonance as a left vs. right issue, but rather as a dogmatic one. The more dogmatic your beliefs, whichever direction they’re in, the less likely it is that you’ll see evidence opposing them as credible, if you even recognize it. It seems to me that the stronger someone holds a belief, the more likely they are to self-identify with it and associate it with their “tribe”. It’s difficult to alter one’s self-concept, and it can be pretty uncomfortable to even contemplate it.

  5. #5 Mark Brady
    September 16, 2008

    The great Sigmund Freud himself apparently had a bad bout of cognitive dissonance when woman patient after woman patient reported being abused by fathers, uncles and brothers. He initially believed their reports, but then it seems dissonance drove him to construct whole treatises around the notion of Penis Envy. At least Freud gets points for creativity. It’s hard to fault him when even today we struggle with just how much abuse goes on inside American households – over $100 billion dollars worth annually according to some research (

  6. #6 Shock Mouse
    September 16, 2008

    Wow, your reaction is amazing. The research specifically says that “conservatives experience it more than liberals” but you just can’t accept it. It becomes a reason for you to knee-jerk react “it affects both sides equally, because I’ve seen it anecdotally”.

    How much chutzpah does it to take to publish some research criticizing partisans for ignoring facts over their own narrative – and then ignore the research for your own narrative?

  7. #7 tinisoli
    September 16, 2008

    “I fixate on news that jives with my beliefs…”

    The word you wanted to use there was jibe, not jive.

  8. #8 shannon murphy
    September 16, 2008

    I’m happy to see this post because I’ve been ruminating over the lack of a backfire effect when Nyhan and Reifler tested liberals since I read your other post yesterday. I, too am a liberal and I, too am acutely aware of my own biases, as I frequently catch myself in the act of skewing my own logic to suit my beliefs.

    I think that you are correct that the underlying thought processes (i.e. cognitive dissonance) that lead to the backfire effect are shared by all humans. I have definitely experienced the mental “digging in of heels” that results when I am challenged or told that I am wrong. What I’m interested in figuring out is what it is about the conservative discourse vs. the liberal discourse that primes people for that reaction. Or, what it was about the test questions.

    I have a few fuzzy guesses. Liberal philosophy tries to be inclusive the whole of society, whereas conservative positions emphasize competition and the success of individuals. This to me means a couple of different things: One, liberals have to “progress” (as in, “progressive”) their philosophy over time as the ‘whole’ of society differentiates itself. An example is the gay rights movement–gays that need rights have emerged in our society, and liberals set about reconstructing the liberal philosophy to include them. Conservatives, on the flip side, tend to try to suppress this progression by holding fast to unwavering truths. Is this my liberal bias talking? Maybe. But you can find lots of patterns to support this, one of the most significant of which is the science vs. religion divide that for the most part follows political party lines.

    I’m not asserting that these differences in philosophy account for cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives–but I have noticed in myself that my biases are more pronounced in certain situations, with regard to certain topics. There are lots of factors, including how emotional I am, how knowledgable I feel, how attached I am to a particular idea. It’s as though I am sometimes ‘primed’ for the backfire effect, and sometimes not. To me, it seems likely that the very nature of conservative politics primes people for this effect?

    Or, with less frightening implications, maybe the nature of the information provided by the researchers primed–or failed to prime–their subjects. I know that, as a liberal, I have read literally thousands of accusations against the Bush administration, many of which are exaggerated or otherwise suspect. We may be used to having to check our facts when someone who is frequently targeted by conspiracy theories is involved.

  9. #9 shannon murphy
    September 16, 2008

    Shock Mouse: I don’t think that the evidence is anecdotal. I think that Festinger’s study of this group qualifies as scientific research, as he was making observations about a group of humans in their natural habitat (wacky as they were). In fact, assuming that you are a liberal, I think that your reaction kind of proves that it isn’t just conservatives who can fall victim to the backfire effect.

  10. #10 Shock Mouse
    September 16, 2008


    Festinger’s study had nothing to do with the liberal conservative split. The Nyhan et al study did. And I don’t get why a “deeply human trait” can’t be found more in one group of people then another. In fact, the study specifically says that yes liberals deny the new evidence, but only conservatives redouble their beliefs by the new evidence.

    Imagine any other post like this generically. “A new study found something that supports my worldview! Haha. Except part of the conclusions undermine my worldview, so anecdotally I disagree with that and quote my personal experiences to prove I’m write”. That’s incredibly un-scientific.

    Anyway, gasp, I’m a liberal, whatever. I acknowledge both liberals and conservatives can be irrational, but when there’s studies showing that one group is MORE irrational, then maybe we can cut the “pox on both your houses” malarkey for just a second.

  11. #11 Shock Mouse
    September 16, 2008

    Sorry, “right” not “write”.

  12. #12 Ralph Stewart
    September 16, 2008

    Would religious training play play a part? Those before breakfast impossible things that are accepted without critical thinking.

  13. #13 Joe
    September 16, 2008

    Nice story about Festinger but I am unsure of it’s relevance. As Bertrand Russell said long ago,
    “the essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.”
    When defined in this fashion, it is easy to see that a liberal outlook must be empirically superior to the dogmatic conservative one. So the outcome of any such comparative experiment between liberal and conservative leaning groups is always pre-determined, by definition.

  14. #14 G.D.
    September 16, 2008

    Joe: I think Russell’s characterization is insightful, but one does have to wonder: How closely related is Russell’s notion of “liberal” (anti-dogmatic, able to deal with cognitive dissonance in a rational way) here related to today’s politically “liberal”? It is far from obvious that the majority of democrats should be more liberal in the sense of anti-dogmatic when it comes to deal with new information than conservatives (although I do think that this is actually statistically the case, mainly because of the effects of and distribution of religious convictions)

  15. #15 mehran
    September 16, 2008


    The following is from a NY-Times article Published on 8-13. The title of the article was:
    ”Once elected, Palin hired friends and lashed foes” :

    “Witnesses and contemporary news accounts say Ms. Palin asked the librarian about removing books from the shelves. The McCain-Palin presidential campaign says Ms. Palin never advocated censorship.
    But in 1995, Ms. Palin, then a city councilwoman, told colleagues that she had noticed the book “Daddy’s Roommate” on the shelves and that it did not belong there, according to Ms. Chase and Mr. Stein. Ms. Chase read the book, which helps children understand homosexuality, and said it was inoffensive; she suggested that Ms. Palin read it.
    “Sarah said she didn’t need to read that stuff,” Ms. Chase said. “It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn’t even read it.”

    I suggest you read this article.
    I am not trying to pick an argument with you. I simply fail to understand how it is less offensive that she tried to remove a book on homosexuality rather than a Harry Potter book. You see, I was born in a country in which one could be sentenced to death for reading certain banned books. So perhaps you see why she so frightens me.

  16. #16 Andrea Grant
    September 17, 2008

    This NY Times article about the banking fiasco this week has an eerily similar point:

    “That is exactly what is happening on Wall Street. Ever since the crisis took hold last summer, most of the big firms have been a day late and dollar short in admitting that their once triple-A rated mortgage-backed securities just weren’t worth very much. And, one by one, it is killing them.

    “Take Richard Fuld, the chief executive of Lehman Brothers. Last summer, as the credit crisis first gripped Wall Street, Mr. Fuld’s firm, which was fundamentally a bond-trading firm, concluded that the problems would be short-lived–and that those firms willing to take big risks would be the ones that would reap the big rewards once things calmed down. So Lehman doubled down on mortgage-backed derivatives–not unlike a Florida condo owner buying a second one to flip 18 months ago.”

    In the face of evidence of a certain tactic being a failure, the response was to apply more of the same tactic!

  17. #17 travc
    September 17, 2008

    While cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias are very much normal human traits, the fact that you ‘catch yourself’ is not.

    Also, the liberal vs conservative split is just a correlation. Conservatives are much more likely to be authoritarians too, but it is more illuminating to say that authoritarians tend to have conservative tendencies / self-identification since the authoritarian part is the more exclusive/rare trait.

    Bob Altemyer’s book (online) The Authoritarians quite interesting and would encourage everyone to read it.

    I would not be at all surprised if people who have little ability or propensity to recognize their own internal biases tend to be conservatives. The current incarnation of the GOP (and the last 8 years under Bush) have done a pretty good job exploiting and reinforcing these correlations.

  18. #18 anonymous
    September 17, 2008

    Having been politically liberal for many years, I became disillusioned with contemporary liberalism because of its controlling and judgmental approach to so much of life. Political correctness, speech codes on campus, efforts to pass laws banning junk food and the like — you don’t find a lot of easy-going, “live and let live” amongst contemporary liberals.

    I assume this is why libertarians tend to end up voting for Republicans. Republicans tend to believe in individualism and individual responsibility, which jibes fairly well with an approach to governing that assumes people are capable of making their own decisions.

  19. #19 A
    September 17, 2008

    “Republicans tend to believe in individualism and individual responsibility, which jibes fairly well with an approach to governing that assumes people are capable of making their own decisions.”
    should probably read “Republicans claim to believe…”
    The current crop of them seems to believe in more regulation (no birth control, no abortion, no ‘gay marriage’) and surveillance of citizens (remember FISA), and plenty of subsidies (sometimes hidden as ‘tax cuts’), especially for larger corporations. Its just individual corporations which can ‘make their own decisions.’ And we now see how the unfettered and unregulated decisions of the CEOs of BearStearns, Lehmann Bros., AIG turned out to be. But then, McCain says he is essentially a deregulator. (Remember, too, the successful deregulation of the energy market?)

  20. #20 shannon murphy
    September 18, 2008

    Right, shock mouse. Festinger’s study had nothing to do with the liberal/conservative split, and it had similar findings. If multiple studies have been done, and lots of data has been aggregated, about a topic then you have to take all the data into account. You can’t just point to one study and then say “aha! Irrevocable proof that conservatives are WAY MORE RETARDED than liberals!”

    I’m a liberal too. But I think that it’s a deeply human trait. That doesn’t mean that conservatives don’t have some nurture (as in nature vs. nurture) type stuff that makes them more likely to be stupid. It just means that all our brains are wired the same way.

  21. #21 Barb
    September 26, 2008

    Cognitive dissonance occurs in less extreme but reliable circumstances as well. The textbook example has nothing to do with politics. The example is that of an umpire making a call in a sports game. When there is immediate debate on the accuracy of the call, the umpire is highly likely to become entrenched in his determination. The really peculiar behavior is that even when shown a taped replay of the erroneous call, very often the umpire still refuses to change his decision. It is only when other umpires watch it together that the change is forced upon the first umpire.

    The summary of this is that once you have made up your mind, you stick with it despite evidence that it was a poor choice.

    So as far as applying that dissonance theory to politics, my guess is that the media plays an extremely big role. Lie, cheat, distort, but get the story out to cause the public to take an initial stand. Once that stand has been taken, the truth becomes somewhat inconsequential to the consumer, who then becomes quite aggravated at being encouraged to reconsider his position- which behavior could easily increase to include at length refusing to even listen to a view that is in opposition to his initial stance.

    This ingrained behavior may have worked to the benefit of mankind eons ago but is hampering our abilitiy to make good judgments today.

  22. #22 Syncro
    October 6, 2008

    Thanks for this excellent perspective. This same behavior has been seen in members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a very conservative and dogmatic group (actually it is more like a cult). There is information available on the weaknesses and damage associated with all 12-step groups, yet supporters become rabid when confronted with the flaws. See for example and The term “cognitive dissonance” is key and has been mentioned many times when describing AA members. A new academic / psychological / sociological study of AA would be an excellent research project.

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  24. #24 credit repair services
    March 16, 2011

    In other words, those members of the alien cult were just like conservatives learning that Iraq didn’t have WMD.

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