Behind the Mask

All of us are facing difficult decisions as we confront the many uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic. Should I open my business back up? Should I travel, see my friends, or go to my favorite restaurant?

The way in which we approach these decisions is dependent on the level of cognitive dissonance we are willing to endure. If you have ever taken a psychology course or read a psychology book, chances are you have heard of the notion of cognitive dissonance. Simply put, it is the discomfort people feel when their thoughts and behaviors contradict each other. It helps explain why people and businesses accept varying levels of risk when it comes to the virus and provides insight into how we can do our part to mitigate this risk. Let’s break it down.

I want to go to the bars again with my friends. I want to go back into the office. I want to go on vacation. A lot of us have had these thought that are contradictory, or dissonant, with the information that suggests that these behaviors may be unsafe. In order to alleviate the discomfort that arises from these contradictory thoughts, we often justify the sense of our choices and find reasons to disregard the alternative. Perhaps we reason that the infection rate is low in our area or that we are probably all going to contract the virus anyways. This urge to self-justify in order to maintain our level of competence is at the heart of the theory of cognitive dissonance.

How we approach this urge to justify ourselves has significant implications for the health of ourselves and our communities. This need to maintain our level of competence results in an unwillingness for us to change our mind about things. When scientific facts contradict previous beliefs, some people choose to jeopardize the health of themselves and others than accept new information or admit mistake.

While not everyone takes this approach and many people are doing their part to reduce the spread of the virus, it is important to ask ourselves if we have ever jeopardized our health out of fear of being wrong. Perhaps you began to walk in the opposite direction of the floor arrows in the grocery aisle and declined to turn around in fear of looking like you made a mistake.

Whatever it may be, the good news is that we can change our cognitive habits. While it may be difficult, it is not impossible. The solution lies in our ability to temporarily tolerate the dissonance, albeit uncomfortable, rather than resorting to self-justification. Once we do this, we can make the most informed decisions possible and adjust them whenever scientific evidence dictates. While we may be a part of the problem now, we can eventually be a part of the solution. All it takes is some self-reflection behind the mask.

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