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Cognitive dissonance, pandemic edition: Class discussion

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A lot of my Intro Psych students struggle with the concept of cognitive dissonance. If circumstances, say, a pandemic, provide an example of cognitive dissonance, and a couple social psychologists, say, Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris, present the explanation, how could I not use it?

In their article in The Atlantic, Aronson and Tavris (2020) write:

Dissonance is most painful when evidence strikes at the heart of how we see ourselves—when it threatens our belief that we are kind, ethical, competent, or smart. The minute we make any decision—I’ll buy this car; I will vote for this candidate; I think COVID-19 is serious; no, I’m sure it is a hoax—we will begin to justify the wisdom of our choice and find reasons to dismiss the alternative.   

As a discussion (synchronous or asynchronous), present this scenario to your students.

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Cognitive dissonance and COVID-19 discussion: Part I

Let’s start with the premise that I believe that I’m the kind of person who makes smart decisions. I want to see my extended family and my friends; I should go out. But, dang, that virus is out there. It could make me very sick. Heck, it could kill me; I should stay home. I have cognitive dissonance between two thoughts.

Let’s say that I go out to visit family and friends. Now I have cognitive dissonance between a behavior and a thought: I’m visiting with people but that’s clashing with knowing that this behavior could be dangerous.

Identify at least two things I could think or do that may reduce my dissonance.  

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Once students have offered their suggestions, such as saying “I’m young and healthy, it probably won’t affect me if I catch it,” prompt with this follow-up.

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Cognitive dissonance and COVID-19 discussion: Part II

While it’s an easy way out of this particular cognitive dissonance, finding ways of justifying dangerous behavior is probably not the best solution. Aronson and Tavris (2020) write,

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.

Maybe what we say to ourselves instead is, “Yes, I usually make smart decisions, and I visited with people knowing that it may be dangerous to do so. While I can come up with a lengthy list of justifications, let me just sit with this for a while.” 

To not fall prey to cognitive dissonance we have to be able to identify the two dissonant thoughts/behaviors, and we have to be willing to stop and ask ourselves why we are doing/thinking what we’re doing/thinking. Aronson and Tavris (2020) encourage us to ask 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…?”

Choose one of the solutions offered in this discussion for how to reduce dissonance. For example, "I'm young and healthy, so I'm less likely to get sick."

Now, ask, "Why do I believe this?" "Because that's what friends keep saying"?

Next, evaluate the evidence. "It's true that those who are young and healthy are less likely to die, but young, healthy people can get very sick, and yes, they can die. Even if they have mild or no symptoms, they can still pass it on to others who could get very sick or die." Cite your reputable source, e.g., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

Reference

Aronson, E., & Tavris, C. (2020, July). The role of cognitive dissonance in the pandemic. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/role-cognitive-dissonance-pandemic/614074/

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.