Cognitive Dissonance and Populist Outrage

Arlen Specter

Cognitive dissonance is what the social psychologist tell us is that uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously.  This uncomfortable situation often results in feelings of anxiety, shame, anger, guilt, embarrassment and stress.  In order to achieve some sort of cognitive harmony, individuals often turn to confirmation bias, which is a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true.  They also deny disconfirming evidence.

Sound familiar?

When times are tough populism offers anti-establishment or anti-intellectual solutions or policies that appeal to the common person.  Populist leaders know well how to fan the flames of populist outrage by validating the delusional beliefs that soothe the sufferers of cognitive dissonance.

We can only hope that the current populist outrage, both on the right and the left, will be short lived.  Historically, your average populist revolution does not end well.



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39 responses to “Cognitive Dissonance and Populist Outrage

  1. “Historically, your average populist revolution does not end well.”

    Certainly didn’t end to well for Huey Long! I know I sound like a broken record on this topic but I don’t think you can ignore the racism & bigotry as a driving force in the current the political climate of “populism”.

  2. nannymm

    I agree, Brian. This doesn’t feel like populism; it feels like hate and fear mongering.

  3. nannymm

    What populist outrage is there on the left?

    • dnd

      “What populist outrage is there on the left?”

      * Jane Hamsher
      * Taylor Marsh
      * Arianna Huffington
      and to a lesser extent
      * Ed Schultz

      Granted there is no organized movement like the Tea Party and there weren’t any lefty hot-heads during the August town halls, but there is definitely a fringe contingent out there who’s outrage is easily explained by cognitive dissonance. Or possibly wingnuttery, though I’m not sure that’s a term used by social psychologists 😉

  4. I agree with nanny on this dnd, I think reports of leftist populist rage have been greatly exaggerated to the benefit of only the cable news outlets. I think what you saw was temper flair at what was a very ugly process of getting health care reform through the senate. And another thing to consider, there is no one in a position of power carrying water for the Jane Hamsher crowd as there is for teabaggers.

  5. nannymm

    Ditto what Brian said, dnd. You’re trying to compare a few individuals on the left with an entire group on the right. No comparison. Although Jane Hamsher and a few others let their anger and frustration be known , there are no calls for lynchings and death coming from them. There are no crazed groups of lefties gathering across America, screaming and wailing, “I want my country back!” The far left doesn’t have anything equivalent to the noise machines of Beck, Hannity, and Rush. You don’t see the Jane Hamshers of this country running around in crazy get ups with tea bags dangling from their hats and hateful messages on their tee-shirts and signs. Yes, the left is demanding legislative change. But the crazy right wingers are calling for secession, murder, lynching, overthrowing the government, assassinating Obama and his family, and heaven only knows what else. Any suggestion that there are similarities between the left and right wing “populists” are dead wrong. The left is approaching this from a policy perspective. The right has gone off the rails; their only goal is to cause chaos. They’re dangerous! The Jane Hamsher crowd is not.

    • dnd

      Nannymm & Brian,
      The point of my post was to point out that what is making otherwise rational people behave in an irrational manner in this current political cliamate is cognitive dissonance. It was not a quantitative comparison/analysis of the fringe left and the fringe right. Clearly the right owns this franchise. But the irrational behavior of those on the fringe left, as articulated in the symptoms of cognitive dissonance indicate that there is enough to go around.

      As to the racism charge, please note that the photo with the post is of Arlen Specter, a white guy, being screamed at by another white guy. Likewise I don’t think the attacks against Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid can be explained by our President’s skin color, as evidenced by the same attacks prior to the 2008 election.


    I didn’t say racism is the only component but it’s certainly a big part of it. The rage against the speaker and the leader has several factors, first off general hatred from the wacko right against anyone with a D after their name. Also them being white is not really they issue, they are seen as proxies for Obama, not to mention the oh so not subtle antisemitism we’ve seen from the tea bag crowd either. To my way of thinking in issues like these motives matter, you can’t make a fair comparison between the far right and left without taking into accounts what is driving their respective passions.

    • dnd

      As I mentioned, the rage against the speaker and the leader began long before Obama was a candidate. I don’t grok the antisemitism as one’s a Catholic and one’s a Mormon. Again, I’m not comparing the right and the left. My point is that the fringe’s passions may be driven by their cognitive dissonance.

  7. “I’m not comparing the right and the left. My point is that the fringe’s passions may be driven by their cognitive dissonance.”

    Of course, no argument there, my point is the intensity level is quite different and therefore one side is an actual threat (in terms of violence) the other is not. Frankly I think you would have made a more compelling argument had you sited the anti-world bank crowd than the Hamsher crowd as an example of the left wacko fringe.

  8. nannymm

    “My point is that the fringe’s passions may be driven by their cognitive dissonance.”

    Then, clearly the cognitive dissonance on the right is far wider and deeper than on the left. Put another way, the right wingers are far crazier than the lefties. 😀

  9. nannymm

    Oops, I forgot to say that in the case of the right wing nuts, much of their passions are driven by ignorance and a herd mentality. Let’s face it, d, those tea baggers are frickin STUPID!!!!

  10. dog's eye view

    Good blogpost.

    I wish we had a more professional media. The wingnuts are sucking up far too much oxygen.

    Nanny’s right in that the lunacy of the left and right are not equal — the right exceeds by a factor of about 11. However, leftwing outrage mongers certainly exist as well. I get tired of those who expected Obama to be a miracle worker or their personal puppet.

    Again, in both cases, the fringes get way too much airtime and print.

    I think it’s driving many people away from following current events like they used to. Seriously.

  11. dog's eye view

    The Christian Science Monitor comes through again with an offbeat story. Spotted on the sidebar:

    Green iguanas and Burmese pythons are freezing — yea.

    Frozen iguanas are falling out of the trees onto people’s cars.

    If that had been happening a month ago, Tiger Woods’ career and personal life might be in better shape now.

    Also endangered: manatees, turtles, and a fish called a snook. (Sounds like a Seuss character.) Not so yea.

  12. nannymm

    “in both cases, the fringes get way too much airtime and print.”
    You are soooo right!!!

    Thanks for that CSM link, Dog’s Eye. It was an interesting article.

  13. dog's eye view

    How fares Sly? Have been hoping he’s comfortable and enjoying his egg and cheese snacks.

  14. Morning peeps.
    Well I see Reids foot in the mouth statement is being blown way out of proportion.

    • dnd

      The moral outrage against Reid clearly indicates how powerful he is and how badly the Republicans fear him and want him gone.
      My prediction: Nevada will be flooded with DNC help and money in Reid’s reelection this year. Look for the President and western state Democratic congresscritters campaigning for him.

  15. nannymm

    That’s an understatement, Brian. But what I really find offensive is some of the stuff written about Elizabeth Edwards. There was no reason whatsoever to reveal the things they did.

  16. From everything I’ve heard about the book nanny I don’t think it will be on my amazon list the next time I place an order.

    • dnd

      “From everything I’ve heard about the book nanny I don’t think it will be on my amazon list the next time I place an order.”

      Me neither, but then again I don’t look at, much less buy, the National Enquirer when I’m in the grocery store. I won’t even buy it when it’s marked down to $4.99 at Barnes & Noble, which I think should be any day now…

    • dnd

      Must be God’s will. Now will Palin last longer at Fox than she did as governor of Alaska? Once she finds out she actually has to work at Fox, I’m betting she quits.

  17. dooty

    I am constantly amazed that Harry Reid is considered a lightweight. How did he get to the highest ranking Senator if he is such a lightweight? I agree that his choice of words was not the best but this will blow over by next week.

  18. dog's eye view

    from Reuters on Palin joining Fox as a “contributor”. Subliminal editing for accuracy.

    “The former Alaska governor generates enthusiasm among conservative loyalists while liberals and environmentalists denounce her.

    (Only liberals? She drove many GOP moderates away the McCain ticket. PS: the wolf lobby is none too happy with Mrs. Palin either; heli manufacturers remain neutral.)

    She has not ruled out running for president in 2012, saying she is concentrating on helping Republicans win victories in 2010 congressional elections. (See Doug Hoffman, New York’s 23rd newest congressman.)

    “Governor Palin has captivated everyone on both sides of the political spectrum and we are excited to add her dynamic voice to the Fox News lineup,” Shine said. (Captivated?? More like many of us are hostages in captivity; it’s groundhog day and we cannot escape the Wasillabilly.)

    Margaret and Helen should have something good up on this soon.

  19. dog's eye view

    any guesses on what she’s “contributing”?

  20. My first reaction when I read the palin/fox story was “gross”. I’m sticking with that!

  21. Let’s just hope he gets reelected!

  22. Breaking News Alert
    The New York Times
    Mon, January 11, 2010 — 7:26 PM ET

    New Jersey Lawmakers Pass Medical Marijuana Bill

    The New Jersey Legislature approved a measure on Monday that
    would make the state the first in the region and the 14th in
    the nation to legalize the use of marijuana for medical

    The measure, passed on the final day of the legislative
    session, would allow patients diagnosed with severe illnesses
    like cancer, AIDS, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis
    to have access to marijuana distributed through
    state-monitored dispensaries.

    Gov. Jon S. Corzine has said he would sign it into law before
    leaving office next Tuesday.

  23. nannymm

    I’m with you. Reid is the best thing the Dems have going in the Senate.”

    I’m with both of you on this.

  24. How nice that I live one mile from the George Washington Bridge!

  25. eprof2

    Just stopped by to say hello and ran into this interesting conversation. My two cents says the term “cognitive dissonance” is way too broad and doesn’t stop (or end) by examining leftists or rightists behaviors because every human being exhibits dissonance on an almost daily basis.

    From one source,”Dissonance results when an individual must choose between attitudes and behaviors that are contradictory.” And, “Dissonance can be eliminated by reducing the importance of the conflicting beliefs, acquiring new beliefs that change the balance, or removing the conflicting attitude or behavior.”

    This is no more a political condition than it is a human condition and, therefore, it’s too broad to have any real meaning as attached to teabaggers or communists or middle of the road American norms and values. For instance, think about how Americans feel about Wall Street. We’re mostly upset at the way WS works for the benefit of CEOs and at the same time we don’t want WS to fail because we think it will upset Main Street; thus, TARP money has been overwhelmingly accepted by nearly everyone even though most think it shouldn’t have happened.

    Hope all is well with you regulars. Keep the good conversation going!

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