Cognitive dissonance theory—one of social psychology’s gifts to human self-understanding—offers several intriguing predictions, including this: When we act in ways inconsistent with our attitudes or beliefs, we often resolve that dissonance by changing our thinking. Attitudes follow behavior.
That simple principle explains why smokers often dismiss health warnings, why racial attitudes improved following school desegregation and civil rights laws, and why we tend to dislike those whom we’ve harmed and to love those to whom we have been kind. Although we sometimes do persuade ourselves to act, we also can act ourselves into new ways of thinking. Our deeds forge our understandings.
The principle reaches into our political attitudes. Consider how U.S. attitudes followed U.S. behavior as events unfolded during the 2003 war with Iraq, which was premised primarily on the need to rid Iraq of its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Four in five Americans told Gallup they believed WMDs would be found, leading 4 in 5 also to support the war. Was the war justified even if Iraq did not have WMDs? Only 38 percent of Americans believed it would be; if there were no WMDs, there should be no war.
When no such weapons were found—and the war’s human, financial, and terrorism-enhancing costs became known—how did Americans resolve their dissonance? They changed their primary rationale for the war from eliminating WMDs to ridding the world of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Thus, three months after the war’s launch, the 38 percent who supported the war if there were no WMDs now had mushroomed to 58 percent. Despite the war’s discounted initial rationale, support for a war that didn’t eliminate WMDs had increased.
Will such self-persuasion ride again in the 2020 American conflict with Iran? Prior to the January 3, 2020, killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani, Americans overwhelmingly disapproved of war with Iran:
- In June 2019, about 4 in 5 Americans (78 percent) approved of President Trump’s calling off a retaliatory strike after Iran downed a U.S. drone. Few believed that retaliation against Iran was a good idea.
- In July 2019, only 18 percent told Gallup they favored “military action against Iran.”
- In September 2019, only 21 percent responding to a University of Maryland survey said that, to achieve its goal with Iran, “the U.S. should be prepared to go to war.”
I wrote the above words on January 8, 2020, and now await follow-up surveys—with the expectation that cognitive dissonance will ride again, as some Americans wrestle with the dissonance between their support for the president and their prior opposition to such military action—a tension that can be resolved by now thinking the retaliatory strike was warranted.
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P.S. Initial post-strike surveys:
- A January 4-5, 2020, POLITICO/Morning Consult survey reported that “47% of voters approve of President Donald Trump's decision to kill top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani while 40% disapprove.”
- A January 6–7, 2020, post-assassination Reuters/Ipsos survey found that “a growing minority of Americans say they are now in favor of a ‘preemptive attack’ on Iran’s military.’ The poll found that 27 percent said ‘the United States should strike first.’”
- A January 7–8, 2020. USA Today/Reuters survey found Americans concerned about increased threats to U.S. safety, yet 42 percent supported the Soleimani assassination—far more than the 1 in 5 who favored such action in the summer of 2019.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)