Syndicated columnist Paula Dockery wrote about her consternation with the seemingly illogical behavior of the American voter in the 2016 election. For instance, polls showed that approval ratings of Congress at election time were around 20%, and yet virtually every Congressional incumbent was re-elected. Crazy, right? If we disapprove of Congress, why do we re-elect them?

Dockery also cited a Quinnipiac poll taken just before the election that showed 67% of Americans agreed with Roe v. Wade; 60% supported allowing illegal immigrants a path to citizenship; 68% were concerned about climate change and 59% supported regulations to curtail it; and 85% of voters felt those on the no-fly list should not be allowed to buy guns. These were sizeable majorities from a respected poll. And yet, the man who disagreed was elected President. Huh?

Dockery raises a very logical question: If we feel government isn’t working for us, why don’t we vote for those who share our views and shun those who hold different positions?

There are explanations and coping lessons from a psychological perspective that we can apply to Dockery’s contradictions. First of all, inconsistencies between beliefs and actions are not limited to voting behavior. Why would an abused woman stay with her abuser? Why does the bullied kid suck up to the bully and seek to join his gang? Why would someone like Jack (11/27 blog) refuse to face a life-threatening health problem? Why would someone waste away in a dead-end job instead of looking for another position? Why would Dad passively ask the family therapist when the anti-depressant for his 17-year old daughter will “kick in” so she will become normal again? Why would a parent hover over a child and protect him or her from failure? These actions appear to make little sense.

To answer these questions let’s note a basic psychological principle: When you commit to a set of beliefs and a course of action, your mind tends to engage in all sorts of questionable thinking to justify your commitment. About 60 years ago Leon Festinger formally developed this idea in his theory of Cognitive Dissonance, and illustrated it with the following case.

In the 1950s a small cult gathered on a hillside on a date specified by their leader as the day the world would end. According to the leader, God would save them and destroy all else. In preparation for this day, these folks sold all their belongings….their houses, cars, clothes, everything. They made an incredibly strong commitment to their belief.

When the end did not come, the group did not turn on their leader as a false prophet. Instead, they joined him in praising God for rewarding them for their great faith and saving the world because of them. Talk about reality distortion! These folks decided the world continued to exist because of them; their faith saved the earth. Extreme self-congratulatory thinking to be sure, but it worked. Faced with the possibility that they were a bunch of knuckleheads who fell under some idiot’s spell, they kept their mental balance with perceptual distortions and irrational thinking, and continued to worship their leader. That’s not a recipe for psychological stability.

Festinger’s theory is based on the belief that the human mind strives for consistency and harmony. Our minds don’t like disharmony resulting from contradictory beliefs and actions. We would add that dissonance kicks motivational forces into gear because dissonance arouses fear. Consider our questions raised earlier: the abused woman and bullied kid fear retaliation unless they stay close to the enemy (the old Stockholm Syndrome); Jack fears abandonment and his inability to confront challenges (symbolically, his father); the job hunt brings fear of rejection; dad and the helicopter parent fear they will be seen as parental failures if their kids fail. Fear, fear, fear……….In each case it drives the irrational behavior.

Fear also plays a role in voter behavior. You hate Congress but you see your representative as fantastic, someone who brings your district lots of money. When things go south it is obviously the fault of the other party. Voting for your guy, is safe, familiar, and shows your wisdom. Congress sucks because of those other members, especially those in the opposition party. Hardly logical or critical thinking, but it makes sense to you.

The coping message here is clear: No matter what beliefs and actions we’re talking about, when they appear illogical, inconsistent, and contradictory, they are often servicing some inner conflict based on fear that makes it difficult to take a hard and honest look in the mirror. And that is why you must be vigilant and willing to face inner conflicts that can lead you to reality distortion and irrational thinking. You simply cannot cope effectively if your mind is otherwise engaged in making your perceptions consistent with your beliefs. That house of cards will eventually fall because it is based on avoidance and fear.

This posting is not about an election or about your political persuasion; it is about coping poorly by failing to confront your fears (whatever they may be), including the ones beneath your consciousness. If you run from your fears you are digging yourself a deep psychological hole. If it gets too deep you may not be able to escape. Again and again, our postings try to make these fundamental points.


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