How Cognitive Dissonance Affects Our COVID-19 Decisions: A Psychologist Explains

Doctor of Clinical Psychology By Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach who received her clinical psychology doctorate from University College London. She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, Business Insider, and elsewhere.
How To Overcome Cognitive Dissonance Amid COVID-19

Anyone could be a carrier of COVID-19, but I want to see my boyfriend.

Staying home is essential to contain the coronavirus pandemic, but I want to go out and do stuff.

Not wearing a mask increases my risk of being infected, but I just don't want to wear one. 

When there is a clash between two cognitions, or between a cognition and a behavior, we feel uncomfortable. 

This discomfort is called cognitive dissonance, a term coined by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. As social psychologists Eliot Aronson and Carol Tavris explain to the Atlantic, dissonance is "the motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to admit mistakes or accept scientific findings—even when those findings can save our lives." 

To resolve the discomfort from dissonance, we either change our behavior or change our belief so that we can continue to lead a life that makes sense to us. Even if our decisions move us in a detrimental direction.

And this essentially explains why some good, decent people have been engaging in dangerous or selfish behaviors that harm themselves or others, especially in the time of COVID-19.

How dissonance plays out.

Every time we make any decision, we unconsciously find evidence to dismiss alternatives. This helps us to feel that our choices are justified. 

But not all decisions feel equally comfortable. The more dissonance we experience, the more we have to justify why we do or believe what we do, meaning the harder it is to see the truth. 

Like a gambler sitting at a roulette table who's lost round after round, we've come so far already. We've invested and given so much, and there's no way we'll admit that going down this path was wrong. "One more round and things will turn around," we persuade ourselves about the wisdom of our original decision. With every step we take, the more certain we feel.

Aronson and Travis state that this happens even more so "when the end result proves self-defeating, wrongheaded, or harmful."

Right now, these instances of COVID-19-specific dissonance are playing out:

  • "We are plunging into a recession, but everyone is spending like it's normal."
  • "Fresh produce will rot, but I'm hoarding because I'm scared we'll run out."
  • "I want to go back to (work/traveling/dating), but it's not safe."

To resolve the dissonance from "I want to go back to (example of normal life), but it's not safe," we could change our behavior. For instance, stay at home, avoid crowds, or go out but wear a mask. 

Or, we could stick to our old behaviors. 

The caveat is that we need to see our decision of going out without a mask as making sense—that we are smart enough not to harm ourselves—so we have to change our cognitions regarding the risk of going out or the utility of mask-wearing. 

This might include conjuring up ideas that masks violate our freedom, are cowardly, or kill people. Or, we could choose to believe that the pandemic is a hoax or that drinking alcohol kills the virus.

These are instances of confirmation bias, where we retain evidence (or instances) that align with our beliefs and discount everything else as false or flukes.

We may only associate with media sources and groups who align with our beliefs, or champion the behavior of Karens—the caricature of a certain type of entitled and pugnacious woman who does not believe in masks and is anti-science—in order to soothe our discomfort.

This is a phenomenon known as group polarization, that our (expressed) views start leaning closer to that of the group we associate with, explaining how some groups start having extremist views.

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What happens when we lean into confirmation bias?

Well, in the case of COVID-19, the outcomes can be physically dangerous. 

The worst-case scenario is we die, like those who attended the "coronavirus parties" intended to see who gets infected first. Or we require extensive medical care, ringing up exorbitant medical bills. Otherwise, we become carriers and infect those close to us, who might end up dead or critically ill. The guilt, shame, and regret will likely haunt us for a lifetime.

For those of us who engage in socially and personally responsible behavior, the other group who doesn't makes us anxious about the added risk: Even if some of us simply become asymptomatic carriers, we risk infecting those around us with poorer immune systems when we go home and remove our masks, specifically those who are older or with preexisting health conditions.

The thing about getting the coronavirus is, if you're critically ill, you may have to be ventilated. This means your lungs are already in terrible shape, and you must be put into a medically induced coma. If you make it through, you still suffer permanent lung damage. If you don't, you die alone. 

Considering these outcomes for yourself or someone else is distressing. As it is, death is a taboo subject, until it hits us and we're unprepared.

On a structural level, the chasm between responsible and irresponsible behavior is also fueling racism. UCLA professor Vickie Mays tells STAT: "We have African Americans who have been dragged out of stores, who have been ordered by police and store guards to pull their masks down or take their masks off" in a phenomenon where Black men fear wearing the mask more than the coronavirus. In a system that's already unfairly rigged against them, there's added anxiety and trauma. 

No matter how much justification we've engaged in, we may not be fully convinced of the wisdom behind our decisions. Even if we are great at lying to ourselves, there will always be a part of us that's aware we're engaging in that, meaning, we'll always feel some sort of discomfort.

How to deal with cognitive dissonance.

The decisions we make regarding going back to our old ways of normal behavior—from going out to working to traveling to dating—will affect the mental and physical fitness of ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities.

It is tempting to immediately want to resolve dissonance by changing our beliefs. That is the path of least resistance. But something that confers immediate gratification can have massive long-term costs. The pain of having to keep justifying our decisions, like the proverbial gambler above, incinerates more energy and well-being.

Here's what to do instead:

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1. Sit with the discomfort of wanting to do something that you know isn't beneficial to you or your community.

It's OK to sit with discomfort. Many of us want to get rid of it straight away because we believe that the distress will rise to a level our bodies or brains cannot tolerate; in truth, our nervous systems habituate to distress, meaning we can calm ourselves down. A simple way to support yourself through this is to acknowledge your discomfort without judging yourself ("I feel ____") and to take a few deep mindful breaths to reset your fear center. This is what I call "spending time to buy back exponentially more time and sanity."

Then you can go about to change your behavior.

2. Decide on the behavior you need to commit to, and then make it a rule.

Whenever I want to support my clients or myself in adopting a healthy behavior, I take a leaf from successful health-promoting campaigns. We need to leverage fear and have a course of behavior that can be followed through:

  • Fear: Get the facts on the risks of coronavirus from reputable sites. Visualize what would happen if you persisted in socially irresponsible or risky behavior.
  • Behaviors: Wash your hands properly and regularly, do not touch your face, wear a correct mask properly, and stay away from crowds whenever possible. 

(Here's mbg's COVID-19 guide and how to travel safely if you must.)

But I know, as humans, we will battle with ourselves. Every time we're supposed to engage in a new behavior, we will talk ourselves out of it.

So here's the trick: Take the emotion out of it. Simply regard it as a new rule. Just like flushing the toilet or brushing our teeth—most of us don't fight with ourselves over that. We simply do it. Otherwise, we unnecessarily incinerate precious energy. It is easier to spend the 30 seconds washing your hands than five minutes worrying about whether you should do it. 

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3. Stay aware of the way dissonance plays out.

Before we knew what it was, we were pretty much its puppet. Now that we're wiser about how our brain tricks us, we can break the vicious cycle at multiple points, such as when we find ourselves engaging automatically in confirmation bias.

One way is to ask yourself, "Am I conflating my loyalty to my (political) leader, ideology, or party with the information I am choosing to believe regarding the pandemic?"

4. Change your environment.

Are the groups you're associating with or the information sources you're consuming from an obstacle? What other sources can you expose yourself to, or who can you have open and honest discussions with privately regarding your concerns and doubts?

As it is, many echo others' sentiments because of peer pressure or wanting to look like they're saying the right thing, so private discussions may work better.

Other ways you can design your environment for success include carrying masks in your bag or hanging them on your doorknob, carrying sanitizer, and using your phone's lock screen as a reminder to engage in these behaviors. Rewarding yourself will also increase the likelihood you'll do more of the same in the future.

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5. Get real about the facts.

It's easy to discount masks because they are non-foolproof. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use them. Just as education isn't a guarantee to a better future but rather an insurance that lowers your chances of not having said better future, masks are inherently about risk minimization.

6. Be open to admitting that your beliefs or actions were wrong.

To be human is to make mistakes. Even the WHO changed its stance on mask-wearing, later declaring that this protects against the coronavirus. The evidence and recommendations will evolve as we learn more about COVID-19, and so will our stance. As I tell my clients, your 2020 self is not enough for 2021. We all change. And so we'll make mistakes along the way.

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7. Think about your future self.

Neuroscience studies on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex have shown that the more we think of our present and future selves as different people, the less we'll engage in healthy behaviors. In contrast, we're likely to delay gratification—in this case, the gratification of changing our beliefs to justify engaging in riskier behaviors—when we can consider the effect on our future selves.

So consider what kind of person you'd like to be in future, when the pandemic blows over, and what kind of world you'd like to leave behind for the people you love. 

May this motivate you through mastering your dissonance.

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