A Liberal dose of cognitive dissonance

Most of us have been disturbed by the strange case of the Liberal Democrats and their actions on student fees and a number of other issues within the ruling Coalition in the UK.  As a member between 1987 and 2010, I have been disturbed more than most.  Today, we hear they have slipped to a new low of 8% in a YouGov opinion poll!

Theories in the shape of Cognitive Dissonance Theory more usually used in understanding the mechanics of persuasion can help us understand just what the Lib Dems are up to.

The feeling of ‘dissonance’ (just like that uncomfortable feeling at the bottom of your stomach when you feel sick) hits when an individual:-

a) holds two clearly incongruent thoughts;

b) freely performs a behaviour that is inconsistent with an attitutude they hold;

c) makes a decision that rules out a desirable alternative behaviour;

d) expends effort to participate in  what turns out to be less than ideal activity; or

e) in general, is unable to find sufficient psychological justification for an attitude or behaviour he or she adopts. (Perloff, 2010)


In order to get rid of this feeling, Perloff (2010) suggests that we can do one of the following.  Alongside each, I will give an example of the party doing just that – except the path that would provide it with the option of getting rid of the most dissonance – change it’s behaviour and either voting against specific measures, or leaving the coalition, or at least more likely, waving a white flag, apologising, and admitting they had done a volte-face.  No – that would involve them admitting they were wrong.

1. Change your attitude: It’s not just student fees, or social housing. Here, Chris Huhne does an about turn on nuclear power.  The video shows his position BEFORE the election; weeks after the election, Huhne is announcing the green light for a new generation of nuclear power.  It is not a compromise, as it is clear those involved didn’t seem to want to put up a fight for the abandoned policy.

2. Add consonant cognitions:  Suddenly, there are new ways of appreciating the policy that, according to the proponents, we could not possibly have known before the election – except we did!  For example, the depth of the financial situation;  the compromises of coalition;  sticking to the ambition of progressive outcomes by targeting the number of those on free school meals going to Oxford and Cambridge.

3. Derogate the unchosen alternative:  If in doubt, ignore the questions, and just ‘slag-off’ the opposition in a less than subtle form.

4. Spread apart the alternatives:  This is an interesting one.  Compare with an imaginary situation had the Lib Dems not been involved, which implies that your Coalition ‘friends’ are beastly.  That’s not nice, is it?

5. Alter the importance of the cognitives elements:  It doesn’t matter that students will be saddled with three times as much debt (a proposition which will put poorer students like my 17 year old self off going to university), they will be paying off less per month when they pay it back.  Yay – it sounds like a Paul Daniels trick!

6. Suppress thoughts:  I was good friends with Tim Farron as a student politician – I’d like to think he still is a friend.  But this clip is a classic example of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.  Ignore the fact that everyone in the party is talking about what is going on.  Tim is at a local party function in Islington, and it’s as if all he can find to talk about is the content of the vol-au-vents and the fact that Trident’s renewal has been delayed for a year.  On that basis, members should be reassured – “we are getting so much out of the coalition”.

7. Communicate:  Newly elected Party President-Elect Tim Farron MP here appeals for votes as he runs in an internal elections, promising members he will make them feel better about themselves again – just like they did when they campaigned against the Iraq War.

8. Alter the behaviour:  99.9% of Liberal Democrats have not taken this option.  The vociferous response of a generation of voters lied to at the ballot box, whose idealism and enthusiasm has been smashed, let alone their vote lost is just a foretaste of what the party can expect to reap in return for not having altering its behaviour.

It is difficult to change your behaviour – to admit that it is out of step with your attitudes and beliefs – but it is the only way to TRULY eradicate cognitive dissonance.  To do so involves admitting that you have been wrong, or have completed changed your mind – and that is something politicians just don’t do.  Instead, they wriggle, they self-justify, and as a result, self-combust.

As a result, they obviously become less persuasive – and the case of the Lib Dems, to many people, an obscene let-down; to others, a laughing stock.  For example:-

Sadly, the only people who cannot see it are the afflicted themselves.  It’s very much like the behaviour of an addict.  For me, it is heart-breaking to see a party I have campaigned and worked for behave in such a way.  I have had no alternative but to let my membership of the party lapse.

The title of one of the most readable books on the subjects sums up where the party finds itself.  “Mistakes were made, (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts.” (Tavris and Aronson, 2007)  If only THEY had been able to say they got it wrong.

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One response to “A Liberal dose of cognitive dissonance

  1. An educational post of the highest order. Spot on!

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