I wrote this while thinking about why someone like Sarah Palin retains so many followers despite behavior that in the past would have caused a politician to lose all support. I believe that rather than accept evidence of her misbehavior, her supporters adjust their beliefs to tell themselves that such behavior is not really problematic at all.


Cognitive dissonance exists when behavior occurs that is in opposition to beliefs, attitudes, and opinions. This dissonance is uncomfortable and it is resolved when the beliefs and behavior are brought into alignment. For most people, it is much easier to change their beliefs then it is to change their behavior considering that the dissonance has occurred because of actions already taken. A perfect example of this can be seen every day in the news. We watch a politician or other public figure get caught in a lie, or behave inappropriately, and then watch as their supporters rationalize away the behavior. It is the fault of the media, or the opposition party, or the bloggers, or someone else. Always. If the individual actually engaged in the behavior that they are accused of, then it is explained away as to be expected because of the overwhelming pressure placed upon them by the media, the opposition party, the bloggers, or someone else. Sarah Palin is classic. Whatever the argument, whatever the issue, she avoids answering questions of substance by attacking the questioner.

Cognitive dissonance is frequently the cause of sleepless nights, the inability to look at ourselves in the mirror or others in the eye, or the need to turn one's self in to the authorities if a crime has been committed. In an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Festinger wrote that we resolve this dissonance in one of three ways: we change our opinions; we decide that the issue is not really that important after all, or we find additional reasons to outweigh the original belief. The greatest dissonance (discomfort) occurs when both options are equally attractive and to resolve it, we de-incentivize the belief in order to justify the behavior. Unlike reinforcement theory which tells us that behavior that is rewarded will continue, dissonance theory is the opposite. In a fascinating experiment conducted by Festinger, he discovered that the greater the pressure brought to bear or the greater the reward offered, the less likely the individual was to change their opinion to match their behavior. This theory is particularly relevant in our current political culture as his experiment was conducted using the theory that a person  pressured to state positions inconsistent with his or her beliefs would actually experience less dissonance the greater the pressure. The findings were statistically significant, which means that the probability of his theory being valid is high.

My own impression is that in cases of political support, the higher the degree of religiosity, the more likely the individual is to hold tight to their initial impression although it is also clear that there is little tolerance or forgiveness for some on the progressive side for anyone who does not toe the party line. Party purity is not a theory held only by the GOP and Tea Party. I have seen recent statements complaining about journalists who have not made their position clear enough--when for years progressives have been complaining about the inability of the media to stand up to the right and ask tough questions. Journalists are supposed to be impartial--as opposed to commentators who should as well, although as they are paid to provide analysis, it is less important for them to keep their own beliefs out of their work. With the rise of Fox, other media has become more partisan in an effort to provide balance, however, demanding that everyone adhere to such black/white thinking is why there is no debate in Congress, the GOP is now the party of No, and the division between right and left has become an almost unbridgeable chasm rather than a necessary means to provide voice to disparate points of view.

Sarah Palin has lost some support, but has maintained a very hard-core base. When we faced the worst ecological disaster we had ever faced--one that she had some experience with and claimed to have an expertise in--she blogged about the outfit she mowed the lawn in and tried to generate hate against a well-respected author. Had he done anything wrong? No. Moving into the house next door may not be particularly comfortable (for either of them), but as a public figure, she should certainly understand his right to do so and accept that with her position comes a loss of privacy. Instead, (without evidence) she insinuated that he has an inappropriate interest in her children and ignored the fact that it is she that has placed those children in the public eye (have we ever seen a child more comfortable signing autographs and attending meetings than Piper?). She got her harem to attack President Obama's children by turning this into an attack on her own (truly remarkable how they are able to do this) and her supporters are so dazzled by her star power that they are unable or unwilling to see her for who she truly is.

If her supporters do begin to see through her, the cognitive dissonance will be so great, that the discomfort in admitting the truth to themselves at how much they have been conned will make many of them unable to acknowledge that fact. Instead, they will refuse to admit the truth and remain in denial. Those people in whom religiosity plays a large role in their life will be most at risk, as their upbringing has laid the groundwork already. A culture of paternalism and authoritarianism is a hallmark of the ultra-religious household. Father/authority figure is always right and to be obeyed. The locus of control is external with rules, morals, ethics, and problem solving coming from someone outside--parents, teachers, pastors, and others in positions of authority. Without an internal locus of control, people are unable to make good decisions for themselves and are vulnerable to those stronger themselves and in fact, seek out others to tell them what to do. This demand for freedom is a rote mantra that if asked, could not be explained. Ask anyone demanding it what exactly they want freedom from and why, and it is doubtful that they could provide you with a reasonable answer. They will say government, taxes or something along those lines, but it is doubtful that they could actually give examples of the alternatives or what doing without really means.

Sarah Palin exhibits all the traits of someone with a personality disorder, the primary trait her ability to manipulate others. She uses her seductive qualities (one of the diagnostic criteria) to misdirect attention from her lack of substance but retains the ability to remain attractive to women supporters by touting her position as a wife and mother. By turning questions into attacks against her children, she ensures the continued support of her female base. Her ability to stare into the camera and lie without hesitation is of course an attractive quality to the GOP and one which they are hesitant to cut loose. Her attraction is so great, that her supporters would find it extremely difficult to resolve the dissonance in accepting that they have been lied to.

In Palin's world, everything is black and white. Questioning her about anything earns the questioner a one-way ticket out of the inner circle--a pretty human trait--but she is unique in her vindictiveness as she then seeks their destruction. An example is her well-known obsession with President Obama. It is thought that if she decides to run in 2012, it will not be because she has any desire to be president (she clearly did not want to be governor, why would being president be any different?), but rather to "get even" for whatever imagined slight he has perpetrated against her.

I don't understand people who live in a black/white world as I see numerous shades of gray. In fact, I love to play devil's advocate and will often throw out debate topics that in legal circles would be considered exculpatory to the other side. This often earns me the cold shoulder if not outright rejection from those who think I am somehow supporting the other side, but I've always felt that if something is going to come up, it's best to be able to say, already discussed, asked and answered. Most people do live in a black/white world, so understand that side of Sarah Palin and in fact, exhibit the same cognitive dissonance and reaction as do her supporters. So if someone is anti-Palin, or progressive, they often don't know where I fit, so cut me off.

It's called being human. What makes us intelligent humans is when we recognize this facet of ourselves and allow ourselves to acknowledge our frailties and try to overcome them. When President Obama disappoints me--as he does regularly--I try to move past my instinctive desire to reject him and try instead to find positive reasons for his actions. I have found that if I look hard enough and research thoroughly enough, I can usually find enough information to at least understand why he did what he did whether or not I agree and remember that he is, after all, President of us all, not just me. When someone who I have liked and respected does or says something to make me change my mind, I do the same. Sometimes I follow my initial instinct to change my feelings about that person, but usually, I discover that my instincts are sound and am reminded that we all put our foot in it sometimes and that when I consider all of my friends, and public figures, journalists, commentators, etc., I respect, there is not one that I agree with 100% of the time. It is the rigid adherence to dogma that is the hallmark of Sarah Palin's and the GOPhers--the lockstep toeing of the party line, the pressure to be unanimous in their NO's, their obstructionism, their quest for power so great that their concern for the country is lost. This is what I fear about the GOP and the Sarah Palin's of the world. I may not understand black/white thinking, but I do understand that it is dangerous no matter which side of the spectrum that thinker falls.