Rabbi Azriel Hauptman
The recent measles outbreak and the resulting focus on groups that are against vaccination offers us an opportunity to discuss a fundamental theme in psychology and that is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort that you feel when you have contradictory beliefs or behaviors. This leads to an unconscious effort to resolve or reduce the discomfort. The result can be the development of extremely irrational thought patterns.
Let us begin with an easy example. Yehuda is a chain smoker. He knows that smoking lowers his life expectancy by an average of fourteen years and that fifty percent of smokers will die from smoking and about half of those before the age of fifty. How does he resolve his behavior with the knowledge that he is killing himself? He has three choices. He can stop smoking, which is the best choice. He can also develop a belief that the scientific claims are overblown and that smoking is not really so dangerous. Alternatively, he can say that smoking is so incredible that it is worth the risk. All of these three approaches are the result of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance can also result from our belief in ourselves as good people. For example, Leah must take an exam to receive certification for her job. She is very nervous that she will not pass despite all of her studying. In a weak moment, she decides to cheat on the exam. This presents her with cognitive dissonance. How can she be an honest person and cheat on an exam? She will attempt to justify her actions to resolve her mental discomfort. She might come to believe that the exam is overly difficult and therefore you “have” to cheat. She also might think that since “everyone” is cheating it is somehow okay. She also might adjust her beliefs in the dishonesty of cheating and develop a belief that cheating on an exam is not a big deal.
An additional example of cognitive dissonance is when there is someone who is respected by his community and then is discovered to have been engaged in inexcusable actions. The contradiction that we are faced with can lead us in one of two directions. We can admit to ourselves that we were wrong in our opinion of that person, or we can develop a belief that this person is the victim of a witch-hunt.
A similar dynamic can occur regarding vaccines. No one in their right mind enjoys giving vaccines to their babies. Watching a syringe filled with chemicals plunging into your frightened baby’s flesh is heart wrenching. The easy way out is simply to not vaccinate your child. However, if you really care about your child, why are you not getting him or her vaccinated? At this point, cognitive dissonance comes to the rescue! You can develop beliefs about vaccines that can justify to yourself why you are not getting your child vaccinated. Vaccines do not work, the diseases that they prevent are not harmful, the vaccines are full of poison, the medical and political establishment has been bought off by Big Pharma, and the list goes on.
The bottom line is that the negative effects of cognitive dissonance are something that we are all guilty of at one time or another. This affords us an opportunity to examine our own beliefs and think to ourselves if we have harbor any viewpoints that are the result of our own cognitive dissonance.