Thursday, April 12, 2012

Guestpost: Attitude Inoculation

Attitude inoculation is a phenomenon closely tied to the much more well-known idea of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the state that arises from the simultaneous possession of two or more beliefs that are incompatible with each other. The term "dissonance" is borrowed from music or perhaps acoustics in general. It refers to the turbulence in sound that arises when two frequencies are not harmonic. Think of playing a black key on a piano that is adjacent to a white key, or the sound of a guitar player tuning his instrument. What you hear—that clashing, shaking sound of the two notes interfering with each other—is dissonance. In much the same way two thoughts can be dissonant with each other.

People achieve resolution of cognitive dissonance by adjusting one or more of their thoughts. A classic example is a person who knows that smoking is unhealthy yet continues to smoke nonetheless. The thought of "I shouldn't do unhealthy things" conflicts with the thought of "I am doing an unhealthy thing." Smoker often discount the extent to which smoking is unhealthy, offering evidence that only a small percentage of smokers die from smoking related illness. Smokers may also attempt to minimize their own personal perception of their consumption by saying that they only have one or two a day or that they only do it during certain circumstances; such as socially or while drinking alcohol. Note that in one case the smoker attempts to adjust one cognition— the smoking is not really so unhealthy— and in the other the smoker attempts to adjust the other— I don't really do that much smoking. The more you think about cognitive dissonance, the more examples of it you discover in your everyday life and in the public discourse.

Attitude inoculation is a particularly excellent way for an outside agent to induce the resolution of cognitive dissonance in a desired direction. Immunological inoculation introduces a small, weakened form of a virus so that the body can develop immunity to any other form of the virus with its white blood cells. In much the same way attitude inoculation introduces weakened forms of a belief or cognition so that the individual's own cognitive resources can develop immunity to that belief. For example, an outside agent attempting to get a smoker to continue smoking would expose the smoker to weak arguments for not smoking, such as "it makes you smell funny" or "it can cause birth defects" and "this can cause some health problems."

Attitude inoculation is a technique commonly used within the ‘punditverse’ of American media. For example when considering an issue like affirmative action, the network can't just start throwing red meat out to their viewers saying that white people are better or that they don't like black people. Instead, they introduce the topic by saying that affirmative action is a policy designed to make reparations for slavery. Of course this is not even a valid reason why affirmative action was implemented, but the typical consumer of conservative media doesn't care about why affirmative action was implemented. These consumers instead want information that will support their already-held beliefs (aka confirmation bias) about affirmative action; namely that it is an attempt to take resources and opportunities from white people out of residual guilt over slavery.

Let's return to cognitive dissonance for a moment. The listener has been confronted with two contradictory thoughts. One is that they themselves oppose affirmative action measures; another is that affirmative action measures are an attempt to make up for the monstrosity of slavery, and yet one more is that any decent person should feel guilty about slavery. It is difficult, if not nearly impossible, for a pundit to make the case that people should not feel guilty about slavery and to suggest that affirmative action measures are a good thing is unacceptable to their goals. Thus, they work on the second belief. That's where attitude inoculation makes its appearance.

To say that affirmative action exists primarily to make reparations for slavery is an easy explanation. Everyone understands that African-Americans used to be slaves and so the case can be made that African-Americans are owed something for their centuries of unpaid labor, loss of freedom and appalling treatment. Pundits, however, can then make the case that there are no slave owners remaining in our society. There are most likely no sons of slave owners remaining in our population, in fact, and so it is unfair to make every white person pay the cost of slavery because of the behaviors of other people's ancestors. How long must we pay the cost, the pundit can ask, and how long must we feel guilty? In this way, the pundit has minimized the motivation for affirmative action and equal rights. They have intentionally guided the consumer to resolution of the cognitive dissonance posed by their beliefs and steered them towards the belief they wish to impose on others.

The erstwhile blogger and free-thinker, Steve Barry, recently brought to my attention a recent research study indicating that low-effort thought leads to endorsement of conservative ideology. Myself a psychologist, I immediately wondered why this was the case and in my armchair psychologist way I immediately thought of attitude inoculation. Pundits, columnists, and other conservative "journalists" do not even ask their consumers to think. Instead, they guide them through low-effort, simplistic arguments that deliberately lead the consumer to incomplete or flawed conclusions through the use of incomplete or flawed premises and arguments. What is so insidious and admittedly brilliant about the conservative punditry's exploitation of attitude inoculation is this: it allows the consumer to retain a sense of righteousness. I believe it is this method precisely that allows the conservative media's consumers to retain their belief in the inherent goodness of their beliefs while simultaneously leaving the rest of us scratching our heads in disbelief that otherwise good people could hold to such cruel belief structures such as those behind the Ryan budget proposal.

—Joe is a psychologist, plays guitar and also responds to the name “Joey Joe Joe Junior Shabadoo.”


Andrew Hall said...

Nice. I remember from one of my under graduate psych classes that cognitive dissonance makes one feel happy about doing otherwise onerous tasks that offer no financial reward. For example, people mow their lawns without payment. If they got paid for it, they would not like doing the task as much.