UW psychologist on why we can’t seem to agree on COVID-19

Jul 17, 2020, 9:16 AM | Updated: 11:30 am
Cognitive dissonance...
Protesters in Vancouver, Washington. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

While many countries have managed to get their respective COVID-19 outbreaks under control without much in the way of conflict among the populous, the virus response in the U.S. has been slowed by a population that doesn’t appear to agree on even the most basic of mitigation measures. University of Washington professor of psychology Jane Simoni spoke to KIRO Nights about why that is.

Opinion: Wearing a mask is an exercise in basic human decency

Simoni points to a growing cognitive dissonance in the United States, which has seen many challenging common sense health directives they feel conflict with their established beliefs.

“They want to take care of their health; they want to protect their families,” Simoni described. “But then they find themselves doing something like not wearing a mask, and they understand that these two are not always consistent with each other, and that’s very uncomfortable for them to try to figure that out.”

That leads to people reacting in a number of ways in order to reconcile with this dissonance.

“They try to get more information about it. They might try to question their beliefs,” she said. “Or maybe they have to say it’s actually good not to wear a mask. They try to justify their behaviors to make them in line with their belief. That’s one way to deal with the discomfort.”

That feeds into denial, which in turn can have people resisting measures like mask directives, social distancing guidelines, and more.

That cognitive dissonance can operate both on conscious or unconscious levels, ultimately leading to behavior a person thinks will make them most comfortable with an uncomfortable reality, regardless of whether it’s necessarily the safest decision.

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“You don’t think you’re really leaving out information or ignoring important health information, but you are, because it’s making you feel uncomfortable,” Simoni pointed out.

In order to overcome this behavior, Simoni recommends two options: gathering better information, or changing your behaviors.

“One of them has to change,” she advised. “Because if you have feelings of cognitive dissonance, it’s because your behaviors are not in line with your beliefs. Something that you say to yourself and something that you believe about yourself is not being reflected in how you’re behaving.”

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UW psychologist on why we can’t seem to agree on COVID-19