Human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.
Cognitive dissonance, coined by Leon Festinger in the 1950s, describes the discomfort people feel when two cognitions, or a cognition and a behavior, contradict each other. I smoke is dissonant with the knowledge that Smoking can kill me. To reduce that dissonance, the smoker must either quit—or justify smoking (“It keeps me thin, and being overweight is a health risk too, you know”). At its core, Festinger’s theory is about how people strive to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful.
How to resolve this dissonance? People could avoid the crowds, parties, and bars and wear a mask. Or they could jump back into their former ways. But to preserve their belief that they are smart and competent and would never do anything foolish to risk their lives, they will need some self-justifications: Claim that masks impair their breathing, deny that the pandemic is serious, or protest that their “freedom” to do what they want is paramount.
Will we be flexible, or will we keep reducing dissonance by insisting that our earliest decisions were right?
Although it’s difficult, changing our minds is not impossible. The challenge is to find a way to live with uncertainty, make the most informed decisions we can, and modify them when the scientific evidence dictates—as our leading researchers are already doing. Admitting we were wrong requires some self-reflection—which involves living with the dissonance for a while rather than jumping immediately to a self-justification.