Cognitive dissonance

I remember learning about cognitive dissonance in some long-ago psychology class. It occurred to me today that modern American society is saturated in it. It’s a state of knowing something to be true, and then acting in opposition to it anyway.

I’m puzzled by it. I do not understand why we act in a way that is against our own best interests. I’m not judging. I do it, too, sometimes. I just do not understand why.

Smoking causes cancer. That is not in dispute. But many people still smoke.


We know that some chemicals not only kill plants, but also cause cancer. And despite that, you’ll find people spraying Round Up on their properties so they can enjoy weedless yards .

Every study shows being overweight increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and some kinds of cancer. But the US obesity rate has now passed 40 percent.

Some drugs are addictive and, eventually, deadly. But a national survey on drug use showed that 20 million Americans are battling drug addiction.

Those are the easy ones to agree on. Here’s where I’m about to send some readers scurrying for the comment line.

How about racism? Young black men grow up fearing the police. Black people have suffered from discrimination in this country for 400 years. It is still so rampant that our streets have been full of protesters demanding we finally acknowledge that black lives matter. Even Hollywood is waking up to its own racial bias.

But there is a fierce instinct among some, including the current occupant of the White House, to protest. Removing statues honoring racists or instituting legislation to reform our law-enforcement system to make our society fairer threaten the very fabric of our society, they say.

What about animal rights? Here’s another classic case of cognitive dissonance and denial that we really don’t want to talk about. We love our pets, even our horses, and we think baby chicks, cows, goats and pigs are adorable. But we torture them on factory farms, kill them in slaughterhouses so gruesome that none of us want to see, and we eat them.

No one wants to spread the coronavirus. Experts tell us that wearing a mask minimizes the risk of getting or spreading a virus that has killed a half-million people across the world – more than 125,000 of them in the U.S. But masks are now a political issue in America.

We live in a country led by a person who has, according to a tally by the Washington Post, lied 18,000 times in less than 1200 days. Forbes magazine’s tally is that he’s lied 23.8 times per day since the first case of Covid was reported in this country. His vice-president gave a speech indicating the worst was past, and then cancelled a trip because of soaring infection rates at his destinations.

Joost Meerlo, the Dutch American psychoanalyst, entitled his work on brainwashing, “Rape of the Mind.” He was mainly studying brainwashing techniques by a totalitarian government, but he also included the hysteria of America’s McCarthy era.

We are not immune. But I wonder just how much cognitive dissonance we can take before we go collectively insane.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Susan Barnett.