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How Psychology Can Help Explain the GOP Fever

There's more than just cognitive dissonance at work here.


Someday, when the threat of economic catastrophe stops its Rick Astley-like tendency to constantly reappear, we'll look back on President Obama's rhetoric about breaking the GOP "fever" and have ourselves a good laugh. As for right now, the health of the U.S. political system continues to deteriorate, and the only prescription is something that's either non-existent, wholly unfeasible, or both. Confrontations are escalating, and it's difficult to envision how that will ever change.

And yet, from a psychological standpoint, there's a case to be made that we should already be seeing change. The re-opening of the government marks a third consecutive defeat in which GOP beliefs were contradicted by real-world events—over the last 12 months the party also lost a presidential election and broke its sacred vows by allowing large tax cuts for the wealthy to expire. Generally, when new information conflicts with pre-existing beliefs it leads to the negative sensation known as "cognitive dissonance." When the belief that "Obamacare will destroy the country" comes into contact with "you allowed Obamacare to survive," for example, you're going to get an unpleasant feeling.

One way people attempt to eliminate such unpleasantness is by shifting their beliefs to better fit the new reality. In a study that helped establish what’s known as the “forced compliance paradigm,” Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith asked participants to perform a menial task. After completing the task, participants were paid different amounts of money to persuade another person to do the task. Later, when participants were alone, they rated how much they liked the task. Festinger and Carlsmith found that participants who were paid less money tended to rate the task as more pleasurable. The belief that the task was boring conflicted with the fact that they had recommended it, and when participants were unable to use money to justify their actions, they convinced themselves the recommendation made sense because the task wasn't so bad.

In the long run, humans adapt well, and ultimately the GOP will abandon its most dissonance-inducing beliefs. Nobody likes seeing evidence that they're in the minority and nobody likes losing.

There's a similar, "if you did it, there must be a reason" logic behind hazing. If you went through all that crazy stuff, the club you're a part of must be really important. When it comes to Congress, the implication that when you allow increases in health care subsidies and tax rates you ought to come to see those things as marginally less terrible. After all, if you let it happen, it can't be that bad.

Beliefs can shift even when people value existing attitudes. In a recent experiment led by Heather Rasinksi of the University of Toledo, participants interacted with somebody who made a sexist remark, but only some participants were given time to respond before a buzzer interrupted them. The researchers measured attitudes about prejudice before and after the incident and then compared participants who had a chance to respond but avoided a confrontation to those who never had a chance to respond in the first place. They found that among participants who valued confronting prejudice, passing up the opportunity to confront the sexist weakened beliefs in the importance of such confrontations. The failure to act also led to more positive evaluations of the sexist. Once again, when people acted in a certain way, their beliefs shifted to better fit their actions.

The reality in American politics is quite different, of course, but there's a perfectly good psychological explanation for that too. When reality conflicts with beliefs, beliefs don't always change. The opposite can also happen. The most famous example comes from Festinger's book, When Prophecy Fails. For it, Festinger studied a cult that believed in the arrival of a UFO, but when the UFO failed to arrive, the members of the cult did not conclude that they were wrong. Instead, their beliefs became stronger, with most people deciding that their faith had saved the Earth.

That's a bit of a unique situation, but a more apt finding regarding "belief disconfirmation" comes from a new study led by Omar Yousaf of the University of Cambridge and Fernand Gobet of Brunel University. Yousaf and Gobet asked participants how much time they spent on various religious activities, as well as how much time they thought they ought to spend on those activities. The researchers wanted to see how a reminder that your actions don't align with your beliefs influenced feelings about the importance of those actions. Or put another way, they wanted to see what would happen when they induced cognitive dissonance.

The participants proved to be more like the members of Festinger's cult. When forced to confront the fact that their religious observance didn't live up to their own expectations, participants began to view the religious activities as more important. In other words, they responded to violations of their beliefs by placing an even greater value on the violated beliefs. Sound familiar?

If GOP failures are eliciting this latter, belief-strengthening method of dissonance response, is there an easy way to nudge them toward the belief-weakening responses observed in forced compliance scenarios?

In the short-run, the answer is probably not. While there are ways to eliminate dissonance, thereby preventing extreme beliefs from strengthening—research suggests that self-affirmation tends to be effective, for example—dissonance is also what drives changes in beliefs. Without the motivation to eliminate the negative sensation of dissonance, you lose the incentive to change. So perhaps we could reduce dissonance by creating an environment in which politicians encounter more self-affirmation (increases in family time or meetings with grateful constituents), but that would make it less likely that the dissonance will become powerful enough to induce a change in beliefs. You’d be controlling the fever, but at the same time you’d make curing it more difficult.

In the long run, humans adapt well, and ultimately the GOP will abandon its most dissonance-inducing beliefs. Nobody likes seeing evidence that they're in the minority and nobody likes losing. Such psychological defeats make for an unhappy life, and at some point it becomes nearly impossible to continue strengthening questionable beliefs. Yes, certain individuals will never let dissonance weaken a core value, but eventually it will become so overwhelming that the group as a whole will change. The only question is weather it will happen too late or just in time.