Links and Comments: Cognitive Dissonance and Fox News

As if on cue, following my past few posts, here’s a NY Times columnist today on Why Fox News Is Still in a Coronavirus Bubble. Subtitle: “Humans will do figure eights to make facts suit their fictions. Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity help the faithful do that.”

The opening:

Back in the 1950s, the psychologist Leon Festinger came up with cognitive dissonance theory, which can essentially be described as the very human desire to reconcile the irreconcilable. Our brains, he realized, will go to baroque lengths — do magic tricks, even — to preserve the integrity of our worldview, even when the facts inconveniently club us over the head with a two-by-four.

Festinger’s most famous case study was of a cult that believed life on Earth would come to an end in a great flood around Christmas of 1954. The waters never came (obviously), but the leader had an explanation: She and her followers had warded off the apocalypse with the unflagging power of their faith.

Today, perhaps the best case study of cognitive dissonance theory can be found in the prime-time lineup on Fox News, where Donald Trump’s most dedicated supporters are struggling mightily to make sense of the president’s Covid-19 diagnosis. And just as Festinger’s work predicts, they are doubling down on their beliefs, interpreting recent events as incontrovertible proof that they were right from the start.

With examples.

Even if they were to wake up one morning and realize that their thinking about this pandemic had involved some catastrophic errors in judgment, neither Sean Hannity nor Laura Ingraham seems like the type who’d acknowledge them publicly. It’s much more likely that they would quietly consign them to a memory hole. Conceding mistakes requires intellectual humility, which in both of these hosts is in demonstrably short supply; and anyway, what they peddle is certainty, cocksurety of opinion. It’s their brand.

It’s also something called the sunken-cost fallacy. Once you’ve invested so much time, social currency, and years of your life committed to a particular belief, or belief system, it’s difficult to walk away from it, admit you were wrong and you’ve changed your mind, and let go of that investment. Especially in a community environment.

And of course the increasingly wide recognition that you can’t change anyone’s mind by presenting them evidence, no matter how unassailable. People find reasons to dismiss the evidence, for one reason or another. I suppose these are two sides of the same coin.


Even under the best of circumstances, we humans love nothing more than to say, “Told you so.” As Kathryn Schulz writes in “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” it’s basically a way of saying, “Not only was I right, I was also right about being right.”

But it is also through recognizing our errors, Schulz points out, that we learn, change and grow. A simple message, yes, but an impossibly urgent one right now. For those who’ve dismissed or downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, now is a good time to reconsider that position. And for those who’ve prayed for such a conversion, now is a good time simply to be thankful, and not to judge.



NYT: Trump May Have Covid, but Many of His Supporters Still Scoff at Masks. Subtitle: They echo misinformation that the president has spread for much of the year, as he has sought to minimize the threat of the virus.

WP: The common link in the torrent of Trump news: His disdain for rules.

Slate: Trump, Laboring to Breathe, Says He’s Fine and Everything Else Will Be Too if You Just Believe Him.

And millions of people will! They’ll believe anything fearless leader tells them!

The Atlantic: Il Donald. Subtitle: The president knows what Mussolini knew: Some audiences crave images that offer false reassurance and over-the-top displays of power.


But the other shoe hasn’t yet dropped. There’s this, apparently trending across Twitter today:

A humbling Herman Cain/coronavirus timeline

Cain kept saying he was feeling fine and getting better for over three weeks after testing positive, and then three days later died.

We’ll see. The ending has not yet been written.

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