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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

A Scientific Name for Teflon Politics

'Cognitive dissonance' explains how we can let so many things slide.

January 08, 2003|JOHN BALZAR

Can't be. Isn't true. No way!

There's a lot of disbelief going around these days.

In a conversation, raise a subject like the Bush administration's recent greasing of the way for corporations to cut employee pensions. Some people rant and fume, while some shrug helplessly. But others simply deflect matters by rejecting the facts. And, as happens, if you dig into this phenomenon of denial just one more step, you stumble upon one of the oddities of our politics: A leader can gain popularity by pursuing policies that are unpopular. Up to a point, the more the better.

Psychologists explain this slice of normal human behavior as "cognitive dissonance."

With the help of Joel Cooper, professor of psychology at Princeton University, I've been taking a crash course on the subject.

"People abhor inconsistency; they just don't like conflicting beliefs in their lives," Cooper explained. When two things we believe are in conflict, we iron out the wrinkles of dissonance.

So if you believe in George W. Bush -- and polls say that a significant majority of Americans do -- but don't approve of cutting pensions for long-term workers, then (1) you can turn against Bush. Or (2) you can decide that Bush is right and that corporate interests are more important than worker pensions. Or (3) you can take the easy path and simply deny that pensions are in jeopardy.

"If you extend the logic, there's a prediction you can make down the line: The more unpopular his policies, the higher his poll numbers are going to get," Cooper continued.

Why? Because we are human, alas.

As long as we support someone, we must incrementally increase our approval in the face of criticism.

As complaints grow louder about Bush's policy on pensions, the distribution of economic benefits and tax relief, his strategy in the war against terrorism or his environmental policies, people either abandon Bush or their faith in him rises to a level greater than the sum of the condemnation.

In short, opposition can be the catalyst to harden, although not necessarily deepen, one's base of support. And remember, there's no small number of fence-sitters willing to side with a winner against all comers no matter what the party affiliation.

I am using the example of Bush only because he is the incumbent, and his adventurous policy initiatives often are less popular than he is. But cognitive dissonance could also be used to explain a measure of Bill Clinton's popularity and surely Ronald Reagan's, too.

Or, for that matter, it helps explain why otherwise intelligent people go bananas for college football even as it corrupts the purpose of colleges.

Standing alone, cognitive dissonance is neither good nor bad, merely a value-neutral description of the way people cope with the world around them.

But awareness of the behavior deserves more than it gets in our political discussions.

Princeton's Cooper says there isn't broad consideration of this method people use to bring order to their lives because psychologists "have stayed too much in our laboratories." He was too polite to share the blame with people like me, but journalists bear responsibility too. Our world is rigidly linear and presupposes that public policy is a rational process.

But not everything in life is rational, politics included.

As the British master of aphorism Charles Colton wrote nearly two centuries ago: "Logic is a large drawer, containing some useful instruments, and many more that are superfluous."

With cognitive dissonance in mind, we can theorize why corporate and Wall Street scandals have not become a gripping crisis in American politics. Many people, it appears, resist evidence that free-market elitists have made a mockery of our treasured values of hard work and fair reward. To acknowledge it could call into question one's very purpose in society. It cannot be!

As Cooper put it: "The greater the magnitude, the more people don't want to deal with it."

Biographer and presidential historian Robert Dallek, who trained in psychoanalysis, believes that Bush has been "very adept" at making use of the public's desire to avoid dissonant emotions and support its president after an attack on the country. "His reductionist approach to the world divides things good and bad, and he has put himself on the side of the angels," Dallek told me.

But Dallek, along with more than a few ambitious Democrats, believe that a president who is both popular and popularly out of step cannot read his favorable poll ratings except with concern. After all, supporters can abandon their disbelief at any time. Then things like pension reductions and tax cuts and budget deficits and environmental deregulation become more lively questions.

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