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“Helping you gain control over the things you want to change”

Fiona Nicolson

Masks, cognitive dissonance and keeping calm

Posted on 20 Nov 2020

A friend of mine, who lives in a European country, phoned me the other day as she was very cross and confused. The mayor of her city, where the rate of Coronavirus is rising fast, had introduced a rule that everyone should wear a mask both inside and outside. On her local Facebook page, a good proportion of people were in revolt saying things like, ‘We will not do this. Masks don’t work’.

Two scientists, a nurse and two doctors got involved in the debate, replying: ‘they do help, here is the evidence.’

‘I don’t believe it,’ came the replies, ‘It’s a conspiracy.’

Why would the mayor conspire in this way? Asked the scientists.

‘The mayor owns a mask company.’  ‘It’s a plot to scare us so we don’t vote’ came the replies.

My friend said to me: “If all these people don’t wear masks we are all at more risk. But even if well-respected members of the community explain why masks are a good idea there are so many people who just won’t listen and that is dangerous. Why are they being like that? Is there anything we can do?”

This got me thinking. I believe if we understand people’s motivations in the Coronavirus pandemic then we can both stay calmer and less angry at others, which is good for our emotional health, and we might even help to change things.

How we cope with fear and covid

Let’s take the ‘why are people like this’ question first. My short answer is fear. Fear is a very unpleasant emotion, especially if it goes on for a long time, and it is going on for a long time for many people in the current pandemic. There are numerous coping mechanisms we can use; some are good and others are not so good.

A good one is taking even limited control and actions over our environment. This would include finding more information, volunteering and helping those worse off than us, plus looking after ourselves both mentally and physically. Another coping mechanism, which doesn’t work as well, is to bury our heads in the sand and downplay how serious the virus is. People who deny the virus exists, or fight against taking proven measures to stop its spread, are doing this.

Our response to fear causes or more likely reinforces certain beliefs. Those beliefs may be right or wrong, useful or dangerous, but once formed they are very difficult to change. We invest in our beliefs and do not like to give up what we have already spent, whether that is money, emotional energy or reputation.

The social whirl stops

Then suddenly, in March 2020, it all stopped. For extroverts this could be a real problem. A friend of mine, who describes herself as an uber-extrovert, constantly tells me how bored she is. She feels as if her whole life has been ripped away and she seems to be teetering on the edge of depression. The world, in which she sailed through very happily going from a busy job to fitness classes to coffee mornings and pub meet-ups has gone. She spends a lot of time on Zoom and Facebook, but says it is not the same. Her preferred patterns of life seem to no longer fit the world.

On the other hand, people with tendencies towards introversion can feel as if the world fits them better for the first time ever. They have the time alone, can concentrate on quiet pursuits. If they are working, they can do it at home and escape the horrors of the open-plan office and the noisy pub for after work drinks.

I want to get behind the bits and pieces and popular psychology in the newspapers and find out what is really going on. If we can understand what is happening, I think it is possible to help both the introverts and the extroverts in our world. And not just for now, but for always. When the lockdown is over, perhaps we will all have learned to value different ways of being in the world more.

Belief in the face of evidence

We know a lot about how our beliefs are formed. Our journey of discovery started back in the 1950s, when a Stanford University researcher called Leon Festinger studied a small religious group in Chicago called the Seekers. The Seekers believed the world would end on December 21, 1954. Members thought they were going to be rescued by a flying saucer and many left their jobs and sold their property in anticipation of the appointed day.

Festinger thought that when the day came and nothing happened, the group would abandon their belief. After all what more evidence could be needed? And some of the less committed members did just that, they left the group and resumed ordinary lives. But the core members of the group, those who had invested huge emotional energy and commitment, did something else. They told a different story, a new story to protect their beliefs. These Seekers said, ‘we stopped the end of the world by believing the world would end. God saw our faith and decided to spare us.’

The event which should have finished their belief actually strengthened it. The fact the end of the world didn’t come, rather than weakening the Seekers actually put rocket boosters under them. They became much more open about their beliefs and much more likely to try to convert others.

This case is not unique. Another religious group, later in the 20th century also awaited a space ship to rescue them. They believed that their extra-terrestrial rescuers were following a comet, which was featuring in all the news at the time (the comet, called Halley Bopp, not the space ship!). In excitement and anticipation, they bought high-powered telescopes to watch the spaceship. But, although they could see the comet the spaceship remained out of sight. So, did they change their beliefs? No. Instead they complained to the telescope manufacturers claiming their product was defective.

This group, known as Heaven’s Gate, came to a tragic end when 39 of them committed suicide, believing that this would bring about their rescue.

What was going on here? Let’s get back to Festinger.

Cognitive dissonance. From spaceships to Coronavirus

Festinger developed a theory to explain this holding of beliefs in the face of evidence, he called it cognitive dissonance. He said, a belief which gives emotional succour to the believers is hard to shift even in the face of strong evidence. We do not hold beliefs just because they are true, we hold them because they give us comfort. And sometimes that comfort is stronger than the facts. Emotion can beat rational thought.

Another factor to take into account is that beliefs do not exist in a vacuum. A person who has built up a whole belief system over years is unlikely to change it just because they are presented with a few new opposing facts. These beliefs will have been formed in a community, whether that is as small as a family or as large as a nation. To go against the beliefs of this community can be very uncomfortable. It can even be irrational in its way. If all your family are going to be angry with you if, for example, you wear a mask during the pandemic, you may unconsciously decide that, on balance it is beneficial to your wellbeing to go along with their non-mask wearing behaviour.

Psychologists tell us that cognitive dissonance is strongest when it involves an emotional investment. There have been many social experiments to show this. In one, people in control set A had to work hard to get into a special group, which the researchers had deliberately set up to be boring. Control set B, by contrast were allowed into the special group with no work. When asked what they thought of the group, the people in control set A insisted the group was interesting and worthwhile while control set B said it was a waste of time. What was going on here was that Control set A were not willing to admit their investment had been a waste of time and effort even in the face of the evidence.

Beliefs are not just rational; they are also emotional. And the tension between the two in the light of evidence and facts is the root of cognitive dissonance

If this dissonance is a belief that, say the spirit of your grandmother guides you or pixies live at the bottom of your garden it is quite benign. It can even help you get through what can be a harsh world and doesn’t do harm. It may help you focus and function better. As a therapist I know that often the best way to work with clients is to use their belief system and work within it.

Some beliefs, however, can be very harmful, both to yourself and to others. We see people’s beliefs leading to dangerous behaviours all around us. Smokers are a good example. Many develop beliefs to justify dangerous behaviours, for example smoking keeps them slim and that is a health benefit which cancels out the damage tobacco does (it doesn’t).

Some dangerous beliefs cause damage, not just to the believer but to those around them. There are some beliefs which affect how we act and that can affect everyone. Believing Coronavirus is not real is one example, thinking climate change is not happening is another. It is not surprising that these false beliefs tend to spring up around a certain category of events in the world. They spring up around events which are especially frightening and appear out of our control.

These are scary things and facing up to them can frighten us. For some people, it can seem easier to just turn away and say ‘no that is too horrible I will not believe it.’

The stories we tell and confirmation bias

We are very clever creatures and can deny reality at a very sophisticated level. We will select the information which backs our beliefs and ignore that which does not. We are also a story-telling species and we will tell ourselves a story to fit with the beliefs which we find most comfortable. This process is often called confirmation bias.

We all do this, to protect our sense of self, our beliefs or our opinion of those we admire. But we do not all do it all of the time. If we understand what drives our beliefs, how our emotions work to protect us we can take control. In this case, it might feel uncomfortable to change a long-held belief but, if that belief is dangerous to ourselves and others, it can be done.

Our deeper belief systems will also come into play here. Some of us may trust hierarchies more than others, some will value collective activity, others will be out and out individualists. All these beliefs feed into how we react in fearful and tough situations. Who we trust can also be influenced by our wider political beliefs. In a world where there is an increasing amount of information about, and some of it is false, who we trust becomes even more important.

Coronavirus means we should constantly re-assess our beliefs

We can react and change in the light of new information. And this is what the pandemic is requiring us to do. Because it is a new virus even the cleverest scientists are still learning, making mistakes and recalibrating in the face of new evidence and new knowledge. Advice will change as evidence changes and there is nothing wrong with that. It is a sign that we are a learning species who are clever enough to work out ways to control our world.

How COVID produces cognitive dissonance

The existence of a pandemic like COVID is a textbook example of a situation which can produce huge amounts of cognitive dissonance. We can all give examples of where our own feelings and desires conflict with the scientific advice about what is safe. Perhaps, for example you want to go out to a big event, a football match, the theatre, a concert, or a festival but you worry you might put yourself or others at risk. You are torn, do you take the risk or not? The evidence, the risk assessment you make and your beliefs interact and are in tension.

How we cope with fear and uncertainty, how much we trust scientists and other beliefs will affect how uncomfortable dissonance such as this is. For some people it can be so uncomfortable they go into forms of denial, such as saying masks don’t work. Or they rank what matters to them and quietly downgrade COVID. US Vice President Mike Pence was doing this the other week when he said that big political rallies were a political right enshrined in the constitution. What he was doing was ranking behaviour, danger, political rights to assemble, and health. In his belief system the right to assemble wins.

Ranking what matters to you is fine. Just admit you are doing it

In one sense there is nothing wrong with what Mike Pence was doing here. We can have evidence-based debates on risk and competing benefits. It may be that to hold the right to assemble over a risk of infection is a perfectly reasonable assessment to many people.

Where things can go wrong is if we do not know we are doing this. Or just as bad, where others are doing it and not acknowledging what they are doing. Then a belief (right to assemble in this example) wins out over health risk (dangers of mixing in the pandemic) without us ever discussing which we value most and which we want. And because unconscious dissonance is at work here that can be dangerous.

We need to recognise dissonance and find ways of living with uncertainty

Recognising dissonance involves reflection. It means asking yourself questions about why you believe what you do, how the people around you are affecting your beliefs, how your values are impacting on your actions. This can be uncomfortable it is also worth it. It makes making those difficult decisions much easier because you are aware of the competing forces at play.

Influencing others who we feel put us in danger

Finally, I want to go back to the friend I mentioned at the beginning and report on what I said to her about how we influence others who are experiencing cognitive dissonance and making poor and dangerous decisions as a result.

What has research taught us here?

Firstly, don’t make people whose behaviour you want to change feel silly or stupid. They have invested their personality in what they are doing and demeaning them will just make them defensive.

Instead talk to them about how we are all learning and acknowledge that everyone has changed their minds since we first entered this worrying time. Draw them into a place where they feel valued and included. The ‘we do not know everything but we are all trying’ place is good.

Point to people they value and respect in their world who have changed their minds and praise these people. Talk about it openly and with an inquiring mindset.  Ask what drove the change in their role model and discuss what there is to learn.

Help the person to confront their fears. This is usually best done by being specific: ask what exactly it is that they are they frightened about? (For example, the illness itself, losing their job, not seeing friends). Once the fear is out in the open they can become actors in their own lives to lessen the threat.

Help them take action to combat fear. We cannot solve the problem, but we can, if we take the right action, mitigate it.

Welcome complexity and value science. Talk about how the world is nuanced and uncertain. For example, scientists are not always right but they often are. After all, we all live longer, we send rockets to Mars, we feed a world population of billions. We do all that because of scientific advance.

Come together on some common ground if there is any. Perhaps you share interests, or are from the same social group. Lay groundwork by talking about what you have in common. People are much more likely to listen to those they like and respect.

Take what is going on as an example of how creative we human beings are. We do react as physical creatures, displaying a fight or flight response when we are scared, but we also rationalise and think. We tell stories and learn from others. We change and develop as we value new things. It’s actually very exciting if you think of it that way.

Life is rich and complex. At the moment it seems dangerous as well. If we understand this well we can cope better. And help others around us cope better as well.

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