Cognitive Dissonance Theory and the War in Iraq

Sometimes you need a psychologist to understand a politician. And sometimes we need a psychologist to help understand the spin that our politicians give to the events that are the consequences of their policies.

We continue to lose more troops almost daily. Iraq is simmering in civil war. Though many predicted that the war in Iraq would empower Iran and galvanize Islamic radicals the authors of our Iraqi policy have been on the stump nominating even more bombing targets. The government officials and policy experts who led us into the morass should be hiding their heads. Instead, they are taking to the airwaves and editorial pages to offer more of the advice that helped prompt our current and seemingly chronic state of debacle.

At a recent republican fundraiser, Dick Cheney more than less asserted that everything in smoldering Iraq is going just as planned. According to the VP, all we have to do is, you could almost hear a cheerleader prompting the crowd -- one, two, three -- STAY THE COURSE! Other architects of our Mideast policy like Richard Perle are offering the same counsel. Why aren't they wearing disguises and hiding from the public?

In the late fifties, Leon Festinger formulated cognitive dissonance theory, which helps to predict changes in a person's belief system. Roughly stated, Festinger held that whenever an individual holds two inconsistent beliefs they will be in a state of anxiety which acts as a constant source of motivation to alter one the beliefs and dissolve the inconsistency. The stronger the investment you have in an idea the stronger the impulse to explain away the belief or evidence that threatens it.

Suppose, for example, I am deeply invested in the belief that I am a generous individual and then I find myself refusing to help a mendicant begging for a meal. On the face of it, it would seem that I had evidence that I was not the altruistic individual that I took myself to be, and so I would be in an inner state of conflict. Festinger's theory, however, would predict that the strong attachment to my self-image as a generous guy would motivate me to begin sanding away the experience that testified otherwise. And so I commence convincing myself that the beggar who approached me was a charlatan and that he would only use the money for drink and blah blah blah, so that in the end, I will think that it was actually noble of me to refuse to offer assistance. How does this example apply to the architects of our Iraq policy?

As Maureen Dowd recently wrote, Bush and his epigones bet the farm on Iraq. Our masters of war have an enormous investment in believing that the conflict that they pulled the trigger on was in our best interests. Indeed, with all the lives lost and the Mid-east on the brink of a regional war, it is hard to imagine how the neo-cons could sleep if they had to accept the fact that they were wrong.

Festinger's theory suggests that our hawks would be much inclined to find some way to dismiss evidence that conflicted with the belief that war in Iraq would ultimately be a prompt for peace. You could here the self-hoodwinking strategy at work in between the lines of Bush's blundering conversation with Wladimir Putin before the G8 Conference. President Bush referred to the democratization of Iraq. Putin remarked, "I don't think we want a democracy like Iraq." Bush quipped, "Just wait." In other words, President Bush is telling the country and more importantly himself that the mass burials only look like evidence against the war. In the long run everything will be all right.

Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, those fluent in the "stay the course" slogans ought at least to be able to specify some set of conditions under which they would acknowledge that they were wrong. More importantly, however, Festinger would instruct us that we the people who are led by these men and women ought to think thrice about accepting their assessments of the war in Iraq.