Home  |  Discussion Forums  |  Articles
Democratic Underground

Frat Spankings and Bush Followers: The Theory of "Cognitive Dissonance"

Or why Bush backers keep saying, "thank you, sir, may I have another?"

November 20, 2004
By Brad Radcliffe

To those of us schooled in the humanistic tradition of the scientific method, George W.'s continued popularity, although at an all-time low, continues to mystify. His lies, venality, hypocrisy, and incompetence are so manifest, we cry, that even mouth-breathing Limbaugh listeners must recognize them.

Not necessarily. Over 59 million voters trooped to the polls a few weeks ago, and asked like a plebe in an old-school frat house for the current administration to continue whacking them with a paddle for four more years.

That W.'s presidency is bad is self-evident. He and his administration ignored for nine months the terrorist threat that resulted in an attack on American soil worse than Pearl Harbor. Then he saw (or pretended to see) a military threat in Iraq that turned out to be non-existent, sparking a war that has killed 1200 American soldiers and some hundred thousand Iraqi civilians. His crony capitalism has decimated equity markets. His tax breaks for the rich, not only did not stimulate the economy, but has sent job creation to historic lows and federal deficits to astronomical highs. The party of "fiscal restraint" is presently attempting to raise the debt ceiling of 7 trillion dollars just so they can keep the government running. His administration detains innocent Americans under the Patriot Act while they let criminals like the anthrax killers and Valerie Plame blackmailers run free.

Jonathon Chait summed it up wonderfully when he wrote, "I used to think U.S. history had many bad presidents. Now, my 'bad' category consists entirely of George W. Bush, with every previous president redefined as 'good.'"

But the question remains, why do only half the voters see W. for what he is-the biggest disgrace that ever occupied the oval office? After all, doesn't B. F. Skinner believe that people change their behavior to minimize negative reinforcement (i.e., pain) and maximize positive? Doesn't classic capitalism preach that people make decisions based on their own best interests?

The answer may lie in the psychological theory of "cognitive dissonance." This idea grew from the experience of two researchers exploring motivation and reactions of cult members in the 50's. They watched firsthand as a cult leader assembled her flock together to escape the end of the world in another Noah's flood. She "knew" of the flood because she had been warned by interplanetary beings who were to rescue the cult followers and save them from drowning in a flying saucer. When the appointed time of the apocalypse arrived and nothing happened, the leader absented herself for a short time from the expectant group to confer with the aliens. The message was revealed to the leader that the faithfulness of the cult members themselves had changed God's mind, and thus because of their virtue, the Earth was spared.

The researchers concluded that because the cult members had invested so much time, energy and money into their beliefs (some people literally sold all they had for the cult), the simple fact showing their beliefs wrong (that no flood occurred) caused intense cognitive dissonance. They of course had the option of admitting they were wrong-in other words, that they were stupid and easily manipulated. But that too would cause intense dissonance. Or they could minimize the dissonance by reaffirming their original beliefs even more strongly-that they had saved the entire world! This choice, although irrational, is much more attractive because it not only spares cult members from admitting how wrong they were, but it gives them an option that shows them to be actually "smarter" (in possession of secret knowledge) than others and more virtuous because they follow the road less traveled by.

What we've seen in the last four years is Team Bush skillfully manipulating perceptions using the theory of cognitive dissonance. After the 9-11 terror attacks, when we invaded Iraq and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, we as a nation had the option of 1. recognizing that our government is hardly better than the terrorists we condemn because we too kill civilians for political ends or 2. buying our cult leaders' patently obvious lie that "freedom is on the march." Which one do most people find more comfortable to believe? Which one rewards the believers with a sense of doing the right thing and which one punishes them with the sense that they, even they, are part of a horrible evil?

This is why military families as a group continue to support Bush's war of aggression in Iraq. They can say 1. the war is a ridiculous fraud and our children/spouses are putting themselves in danger in an enterprise that makes America more (not less) likely to be attacked or 2. this is a heroic sacrifice that our children/spouses are willing to pay to depose a threatening tyrant and establish freedom around the world. Accepting the truth that one's own child died a preventable death for absolutely nothing requires the kind stoic realism that few people possess. It sends Americans into a confusing twilight zone of questioning everything they have been so painstakingly taught-that our war-time leaders really care about our soldiers, that they act in the best interest of the country, that when the chips are down and it really matters, our leaders are good and true, that if America decides to go to war, we must be in the right. It threatens to unhinge us from a belief system we have relied on our entire lives.

The alternative, that our president would knowingly mislead the public to take control of oilfields, sacrifice soldiers' lives to enrich his business cronies, and kill Iraqi children to make countries like Saudi Arabia toe the American line, is just too agonizing a thought to be dreamt of for most Americans.

Ironically, "cognitive dissonance" theory suggests that the more egregious the sacrifice or punishment, the more valued the experience or knowledge gained. This is why your dad always said that you'll appreciate something more if you pay for it yourself (beside the fact he's a tightwad), why fraternities put their pledges through otherwise pointless hazing rituals (beside the fact they're sadists), and why potential dating partners will never call you back right away (beside the sense of superiority it gives them). "I wouldn't be subjecting myself to all this," we rationalize to ourselves, "if the end result weren't worth it," and the more discomfort and embarrassment we are subjected to, the more the end result grows in our perception to meet that sacrifice.

A lot of Americans who lean conservative will react to Bush's bad economy, his humiliating gaffes, his blatant contradictions, and his obvious failures, by supporting him even more. To turn against him now is to reveal a truth too painful to be considered-that they were stupid and easily manipulated before. Like cult members who are too emotionally invested to see reality, every insult to their rationality must be turned into a triumph, every injury to their pocketbook and well-being must be transformed into another righteous example of how "freedom isn't free."

9-11 must be trumpeted as a "triumph of the human spirit" instead of what Bill Maher called "a f*** up by a guy on vacation." It's four more years of floggings, folks-get used to hearing the whipping boys screaming not for mercy but for more strokes of the bloody scourge against their own flesh. Get used to the Bush backers waving their flags even more frenetically, their robotic smiles pasted on with even more fervor, their gas-guzzling SUV's covered with even more yellow ribbon stickers, their self-assurance even more self-assured.

It's a lot easier than thinking.

 Print this article (printer-friendly version)
Tell a friend about this article  Tell a friend about this article
 Jump to Editorials and Other Articles forum
 
Support DU
Click here to donate
Democratic Underground is a totally independent website, funded almost entirely by member donations. Thank you for your support!
       
DU Store
Click here to visit the DU Store!
Visit the DU Store
We've got sweatshirts, mugs, mousepads, and much more...
 
The Usual Suspects
 
The Top 10 Conservative Idiots The Top 10 Conservative Idiots
April 17
The Crisis Papers The Crisis Papers
April 18
The Plaid Adder The Plaid Adder
September 14
Ask Auntie Pinko Ask Auntie Pinko
March 30
Blog Box Blog Box
April 14
Equal Time with Bob Boudelang Equal Time with Bob Boudelang
December 17

Hate Mailbag
November 2
DU Recommends
Click here to buy from Amazon.com, and DU gets a share of your purchase!

Unequal Protection
Buy it!

Unequal Protection
Buy it!

Click here to buy from Amazon.com

Home  |  Discussion Forums

About DU  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy

Got a message for Democratic Underground? Click here to send us a message.

© 2001 - 2011 Democratic Underground, LLC