Saturday, November 17, 2012

Cognitive Dissonance and Mitt Romney

So Willard “Mitt” Romney has lost, and I still never learned what the hell “Mitt” stands for.

After a campaign full of the most outrageous, repeated, shameless lies on virtually every subject imaginable, Romney can finally return to his love of lying to his family. Also, evading taxes and buying show horses. (Who wants to bet against him revising his current-year tax return to take his effective tax rate down to 9% from 14%?) It is hard to imagine why he ever felt any need or desire to be president. I would enter the realm of speculation if I were to guess, and none of the answers the campaign gave can be trusted. Going down in history as the most flagrantly dishonest, insincere politician in American politics may not have been his goal, but it might well be the result of his campaign. One aspect of the Romneys did strike me as sincere and genuine, however, and that was their utter contempt for ordinary Americans and disregard for their struggles. How, I wondered, could someone as privileged as Mitt Romney treat 47% of America as beneath contempt? (In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I have been part of that group as recently as two years ago when, while working 60-80 hours/week, I was eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit on my measly Lecturer salary. This is because my state government believes in Freedom!) My theory is that it is based on cognitive dissonance and the tendency for people to reduce their cognitive dissonance. First, an example.

I lift weights and have lifted weights for about two decades. I have type 1 diabetes, which caused me, when I got it, to lose 40 pounds of muscle over the course of one year before I was diagnosed. In addition, I have suffered just about every type of muscle, tendon, ligament injury not requiring surgery known to humanity. Still, while I had diabetes and had not been diagnosed, I went to the gym and attempted to lift weights despite being so tired that it felt as though I would fall asleep on the weight benches. (I was also finishing my dissertation and working my first full-time teaching job.) Some of my other injuries have been rotator cuff tears, chondromalacia (a prearthritic condition in my knees), something called ‘frozen shoulder’, and, most recently, tendinitis (not counting all the other minor aches and pains that come with weightlifting). Through all of this I continued to lift weights. (I’ve found the best injuries are the ones where the doctors say, you can keep training even if it hurts; the training won’t make it worse. I hate the injuries when I have to stop lifting. I’m looking at you, tendinitis.)

Why do I bring up this story? Because of the difficulties I have had in keeping up my weight-training, I have a really hard time sympathizing with obese, overweight, or out-of-shape people. When people say they don’t have time to go the gym or that they have some problem that makes it hard to exercise, I can’t fathom it. I am engaged in reducing cognitive dissonance.

According to Wikipedia,
Cognitive dissonance is the term used in modern psychology to describe the feeling of uneasiness when holding two or more conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously.

One consequence of this is that people who do something that is considered wrong are more sympathetic to people who also done it.
Here’s one of the examples of cognitive dissonance reduction from the Wikipedia page. People will tend to :

Justify behavior that opposed their views: Students judge cheating less harshly after being induced to cheat on a test [The assumption is that no one believes that cheating on a test is morally acceptable.]

The converse of this is that people who resist the temptation to cheat tend to judge cheaters more harshly. People may be reasoning thus: I could resist cheating, so everyone could resist cheating, so they must be bad people for cheating. In my case, I have constantly had temptations to quit lifting weights, but I have not done so, and so it is very difficult for me to feel any sympathy for people who don’t exercise. It’s easy to think: I’ve managed to stay in shape despite all these challenges, so you should be able to as well. When other people struggle with things that I have managed to do, I can feel the dissonance of believing that my struggles were not so great after all (but they felt terrible!) compared to others or I can conclude that these other people are lazy or just plain weenies (I’m looking at you, Paul Ryan. With all the campaign cash you get, you'd think he could buy a bicep. Or is it all soft money?)

The Romneys appear to believe that they succeeded despite considerable struggles. Witness this story about an interview [] with Anne Romney. Similarly, in his famous 47% video, Mitt makes the rather implausible claim that he did not receive help in his business career from his father (because he had become wealthy enough himself to donate his inheritance that his father left him). No doubt they did struggle. Everyone struggles in one way or another, at one time or another. I’m sure that raising 5 boys was difficult, especially for someone with MS. My mom had 3 boys, and I’ve always said she was a saint for it. (Of course, she was also a public school teacher.) The Romneys believe they had to struggle with financial hardship as well, selling off stock to survive, living in a small apartment, and the rest. Most of us could wish for that kind of hardship, but still, it seemed difficult to them. Given their perception of their own difficulties, they probably reasoned as I am tempted to: we managed to overcome our difficulties, so other people should be able to overcome their financial difficulties as we did. The fact that they have not done so indicates that they are shiftless layabouts happy to live off the work of other, more productive citizens. The alternative is to think that the Romney’s struggles were not so great after all, that other people have things much worse than they did, or that others lack some advantages they had. Nobody wants to think those things, that they are privileged and succeeded primarily because of their advantages, so they blame the 47% for their own poverty.

There must be at least one other factor at work, of course, since lots of wealthy people sympathize with the poor. I think there must be an implicit comparison group and a lack of exposure to true suffering. If the Romneys only compared themselves to other rich people, they might not recognize their advantages. If they are not exposed to the truly needy, they can write off their struggles more easily. (Today I watched a man with one leg negotiating a 5 lane street in his walker. Come on, dude: Pull yourself up by your own bootstrap!) Lack of exposure to the real suffering of the poor in America clearly enables a lack of empathy as well.

I like to think that there is a lesson of some sort in all this. Our struggles are rarely as bad as we think they are? We should be more aware of the world outside our (comparatively privileged) purview to develop empathy for those worse off than ourselves? The American people can see through the lies of an overprivileged jerk? I’ll leave that for another day, and now hope that Mitt Romney, crying bitter tears into his silken pillows, learns a decent empathy for at least some Americans: wealthy, failed Republican presidential contenders. It would be too much to hope that he can extend that circle of empathy any further.

On a somewhat related note, I was as amazed as anyone that Karl Rove et al. fully bought into their own bull$%#t about Romney’s popularity. As any good drug dealer knows, never sample your own product. I had always had Rove pegged as a con man, not a true believer. I guess even con men can fall for their own cons if they run them long enough.