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How Cognitive Dissonance Explains The Risks We Take, Decisions We Make

Heather Mitchell
Heather Mitchell

When Heather Mitchell saw those viral Lake of the Ozarks images of not so socially distanced partying over Memorial Day weekend, she felt concern and frustration — like many people. But she also saw the situation as a clear example of the various ways humans respond when new information conflicts with previously held beliefs.

Mitchell is an associate professor of psychology at Webster University. She specializes in cognitive psychology, which includes attention to cognitive dissonance. And in the age of COVID-19, that means exploring how people deal with that psychological conflict — and the ways they rectify the uncomfortable disharmony between their beliefs and behaviors.

“Human beings, we really want to be consistent, and, in fact, a really important motivation for us is to maintain that consistency with the way we’re thinking and feeling and behaving,” Mitchell explained on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

“And so whenever we have the dissonance, or discomfort, that we feel related to those inconsistencies, we really engage in a behavior or a type of thinking to try to lessen that dissonance.”

In the case of the wildly different approaches to celebrating Memorial Day during a pandemic, the Webster faculty member said, “past experiences with Memorial Day and what we like to do are not lining up with the warnings and dangers that are being shared with us during this pandemic.”

That leads to a decision point: “How are we going to behave related to these competing perspectives?”

“Some individuals certainly chose to hunker down and not leave and just enjoy a quiet Memorial Day in their homes ... adhering to all the recommendations and guidelines that they had been given,” Mitchell explained, “while we saw the other end of the continuum with the footage that came out of the Lake of the Ozarks.”

But large parties that trade personal safety and the greater good for cherished weekend fun are hardly the only situations where cognitive dissonance regularly plays a role in decision-making these days. And the tradeoffs, in some cases, seem a lot trickier to manage.

For example: Should a parent put a child back in day care, or not? With the current information available, as well as a lot of remaining uncertainty, about the nature of the novel coronavirus, what is the best course of action — especially taking into account various household and financial realities? Mitchell recently grappled with this particular conundrum herself.

Also: Should one join a large political protest, even if most people are wearing masks? What if there’s some attempt to maintain some physical distance between people? If a political cause feels like a matter of life and death, does that mean it’s OK to increase the potential spread of COVID-19?

The answers aren’t simple, and no matter the final decision, one belief, attitude or behavior often feels in conflict with others. St. Louis on the Air put up a poll on Twitter and via Facebook, and as host Sarah Fenske noted during the show, by far the most challenging situation to navigate, for many people, was whether to participate in the protests against police brutality currently taking place.

Listener Peggy Dolter shared her own perspective on trying to reconcile what she knows with what she does these days. She said she’s been experiencing information overload about where things stand in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases and where things are headed with the pandemic right now.

“As things are opening up, I’m weighing this: Is it OK to go to a restaurant, eat outside with friends, wearing a mask when we’re not eating? Is it OK to go away for a weekend?” she wondered. “There are fewer than 10 people sharing a house on the lake. Is that OK? It’s a small group. We’d be in separate bedrooms … just things like that that are a little hazy now, they’re in a gray area now. … Before, it was very simple: 'No, don’t get together. Just don’t see your friends, period, you know.' And now it’s just a little more confusing and nuanced. And that’s the sort of thing that I think probably is on a lot of people’s minds right now.”

Mitchell acknowledged that decision-making is far from easy given the COVID-19 crisis and ongoing uncertainty. But she said she ultimately has some faith in people’s abilities to navigate the cognitive dissonance in thoughtful ways.

“I do believe we [all] want to do the absolute best we can to better ourselves, our homes and our lives as we contribute, hopefully beneficially, to the lives of our neighbors and each other.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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