Cognitive dissonance is the brain’s inability to handle two conflicting realities, so it creates an alternate one, which often defies actual reality. Cognitive biases reflect mental patterns that can lead people to form beliefs or make decisions that do not reflect an objective and thorough assessment of the facts. For instance, people tend to seek out information that confirms preexisting beliefs and reject information that challenges those beliefs. Segregation across the American electorate along economic, political, and social lines contributes to the development of insular and isolated communities, each with its own narrative, worldview, and, increasingly, even “facts.” The growth in the volume of subjective content relative to factual information increases the likelihood that audiences will encounter speculation or downright falsehoods. That makes it more difficult to identify key pieces of factual information. What is the importance or significance that individual citizens understand the debacle of policy or even a good grasp of all the facts?
Festinger first developed the theory of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s to explain how members of a cult who were persuaded by their leader, that the earth was going to be destroyed on 21st December and that they alone were going to be rescued by aliens, actually increased their commitment to the cult when this did not happen. The dissonance of the thought of being so stupid was so great that instead they revised their beliefs to meet with obvious facts: that the aliens had, through their concern for the cult, saved the world instead. Eileen Barker, has written that, together, cult leaders and followers create and maintain their movement by proclaiming shared beliefs and identifying themselves as a distinguishable unit; behaving in ways that reinforce the group as a social entity, like closing themselves off to conflicting information; and stoking division and fear of enemies, real or perceived.
During the 1980s, school systems lowered educational standards to protect children from failure. The world would be saved from crime, drug abuse and under-achieving through bolstering self-esteem. This self-esteem movement has had a significant impact – in order to ensure positive self-esteem education standards were lowered, creating a milieu for extreme individualism. When there is too much self-esteem there are problems of self-tolerance, entitlement and narcissism. This person demands automatic and full compliance with his/her expectations. The cult of self-esteem that was created in schools provides a pool of individuals in the 21st century who view the world from an emotional rather than a rational perspective, supporting extreme individualism and allowing personal feelings to overcome the distinction between right and wrong. This person is addicted to the attention of others for admiration, applause and admiration. Behind this façade they only care about appearances.
The culture of extreme individualism ushered in narcissism that influences decision-making and accountability today. With narcissism, such a person lacks empathy and does not recognize boundaries: personal, corporate or legal. The world viewed from an emotional rather than a rational perspective allows personal feelings to override the distinction between right and wrong. Following three decades of the cult of self-esteem, individuals in the financial services industry, with self-tolerance and a sense of entitlement, leveraged the market and plunged the world into economic chaos. This is an example of the ugly side of individualism. They lack respect for authority, and habitually lie to people. It is impossible to distinguish pathological narcissists from self-confident, self-promoting, highly individualistic individuals. Earon Davis observes, “A society that creates” [a milieu for extreme individualism, and the worship of wealth], “can self-destruct, especially through false choices, “logic” and “reason” that are distorted and empowered by cognitive dissonance.”
Populism is a political discourse that imagines a struggle between a good and virtuous “people” and a nefarious establishment. Populists’ successes can be attributed to cults of personality: the leader has to embody the people but also stand above them. He must appear ordinary, to allow people to relate to him. And yet he must also be seen as extraordinary, so that people will grant him permission to be the arbiter of their individual and national destiny. For instance, they’re not about likeability. Leaders with cults of personality are usually aggressive. They keep audiences on edge with their outbursts and unpredictability. They create a bond that goes beyond agreeing with ideas and policies: people simply want a part of this person. And like Putin and Berlusconi, Trump’s appeal is less intellectual than emotional. No matter if few of his political ideas are original.
All three of these men have mastered the double appeal that is essential to cults of personality. They advertise their wealth and glamour, but connect with people as populists, using language full of earthy sayings, insults, coarse and broad humor (often directed at adversaries), and slogans (called “Putinisms” in Russia). Part of the international elite, they are also quintessentially of their own countries. That is one reason they are much more loved at home than abroad. Trump does not have the ability to muzzle all the media, like Putin (although he does his best to intimidate journalists who oppose him). And he does not own television networks, like Berlusconi. However, Trump has a mutual understanding with Fox News that helps him set agendas and influence the news cycle like no other elected Republican – all the while maintaining a large grass roots following.
Trump instinctively understands how indispensable his own individual persona is to his ultimate goal of grasping and maintaining power. Amidst his string of business failures, Trump’s singular talent has been that of any con man: the incredible ability to cultivate a public image. Of course, Trump did not build his cult of followers – his in-group in many ways – as the stage was set for his entrance. America had already split into two political identities by the time he announced his campaign for president in 2015, not just in terms of the information we consume, but down to the brands we prefer and the stores we frequent. With the help of Fox News and Trump’s reality TV star’s penchant for manipulating the media, Trump tore pages from the us-against-them playbook of the European far right and presented them to a segment of the American public addicted already primed to receive it with religious fervor.1
The media creates cognitive dissonance, the feeling of uncomfortable tension, which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time. The cult of individualism makes us particularly prone to cognitive dissonance because our personal identity is very important. We see ourselves as stable self-contained beings. However, advertising that we may be missing something, or not fitting in creates anxiety. Television tends to feed an information diet (of self-approval) similar to consuming too much sugar inducing short-term euphoria and happiness while distracting from reality. The weakness of the mass media remains an inability to transmit tacit knowledge and an inability to deal with complex issues, so they tend to focus on the unusual or sensational, and the promotion of anxiety and fear. Confirmation-bias draws us to in to the one-sided outlets, and the cognitive dissonance pushes us away from conflicting ideas. Cognitive dissonance stops us from hearing other opinions that conflict.
Donald Trump, the president we meet in the media every hour of every day, blots out much of the rest of the world and much of what’s meaningful in it. Such largely unexamined, never-ending coverage of his doings represents a triumph of the first order both for him (no matter how he rails against the media) and for an American cult of personality that will take us who knows where (but nowhere good). After all, his greatest skill – the one he’s spent a lifetime perfecting – is undoubtedly his unerring instinct for just how to attract the camera under more or less any circumstances. The result of the cognitive dissonance he creates is a picture of the world that’s deceptive in the extreme. It is necessary to come to terms with the fact cognitive dissonance is a feature of humans that predisposes us to self-delusion, bias and blindness to our errors and biases.
It is important that individual citizens have a grasp of facts as politicians use the mass media in order to increase their popularity. We can give up the struggle for truth and adopt the feel-good illusions that trap us in a matrix of lies and deceit. However, these illusions are dangerous. Some of that dissonance can be a good thing, but too much (or too much unresolved tension) means we’re constantly at conflict with ourselves. And that tension and conflict can make us feel stressed, irritated, and unhappy if we let them fester for too long. Take the time to pause and think through your situation and your feelings. It’s important to be in touch with your own value system and know when your thinking is being driven by emotions. It is necessary to create the social environment or milieu to support good governance to control cognitive dissonance and the consequent balancing of perception that leads to misperception.
1 Alexander Hurst (13 Dec 2018) Escape From the Trump Cult https://newrepublic.com/article/152638/escape-trump-cult