08/29/2012 02:29 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

Todd Akin, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Quest for Decency

On the eve of his party's national convention, Congressman Todd Akin, a candidate for the Senate in Missouri, made his now-famous statement about rape immunizing a woman against pregnancy. "It seems to me," Akin declared, "first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." The statement produced a firestorm across the political spectrum. Liberals were angered by what they referred to as his heartless ignorance. Conservatives (including Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan) urged him to drop out of the senatorial race -- not because they disagreed with his stance against abortion without exception, but because of the language he used. Even Rush Limbaugh was appalled.

I, too, am appalled by the outrageous ignorance of Mr. Akin's belief, but I would not call him heartless. Rather, I would suggest that Akin is a man suffering from the pain of cognitive dissonance.

Social scientists have been well acquainted with the theory of cognitive dissonance for more than half a century. It has generated thousands of experiments that have fundamentally changed the way we look at how the human mind works. But it is only during the past few years that it has become a popular phrase among social satirists and political commentators, from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the left to David Brooks and George Will on the right. Occasionally they use the term correctly, but more often than not they get it wrong, simply using the concept as a synonym for conflict. It is not. Because cognitive dissonance is a subtle, nuanced, and useful idea that can help shed light on a host of otherwise confusing events -- political and nonpolitical -- it might be helpful to take a closer look at the theory.

Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as "smoking is a dangerous thing to do because it could kill me" and "I smoke two packs a day." Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don't rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by changing the other cognition -- that is, by convincing herself that smoking isn't really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too). As a last resort, she might convince herself that she would rather live a happier, shorter life with cigarettes than a longer, tenser life without them.

Cognitive dissonance is most powerful and most painful when our self-concept is involved. Because almost all of us consider ourselves to be relatively smart, competent, and decent, if we do something that makes us feel stupid, incompetent, or immoral, we experience intense dissonance. To reduce it, we strive to find a way to justify what we have done.

Let me give you just two examples of how we have induced cognitive dissonance in the laboratory and observed people attempting to reduce it. In one of my earliest experiments, students volunteered to participate in a series of group discussions on the psychology of sex. I randomly assigned some students to control conditions where they were allowed into the group with little or no effort. The others had to go through a great deal of effort to be admitted to the group. Each volunteer then listened to the same recording allegedly of a discussion being held by the group they had just joined. The discussion was boring and tedious. The students in the control group saw it for what it was, a worthless group, and did not want to come back for another meeting. But those in the high-effort condition rated the group as worthwhile and enjoyable; they could hardly wait for the next meeting. Why? The cognition "I went through hell and high water to get into a boring group" was dissonant with their self-concept of being smart. Therefore, they were motivated to see the group in the best possible light, downplaying the most worthless aspects of the discussion and emphasizing in their minds those few aspects of the discussion that weren't terrible.

In another experiment students were given the opportunity to cheat on a test to get a reward. Prior to taking the test, their attitudes toward cheating were similar: They thought cheating was wrong but that there are far worse crimes. Believing they could not be detected, some students cheated, while others resisted the temptation. When their attitudes toward cheating were re-measured, those who cheated reduced dissonance by softening their feeling and justifying their actions: "Everyone does it"; "I would be a fool not to cheat"; "Hey, cheating is a victimless crime." But those who didn't cheat, who lost the prize, justified their decision by hardening their attitude: "People who cheat are scum who should be publicly humiliated." Within a few hours, the attitudes of the two groups were miles apart. For "cheating," substitute having an adulterous affair or fudging one's income tax returns, and you will get a feel for how dissonance reduction works.

What does all this have to do with Todd Akin? My guess is that, like the people in these experiments, Akin sees himself as a relatively smart and decent person. He believes that life begins at conception. Therefore he is opposed to abortion, even in the case of rape. At the same time, seeing himself as a compassionate person, he does not feel totally comfortable with the idea that a woman who is "legitimately" raped should be forced to carry the rapist's baby to term. How can he reduce the resulting cognitive dissonance? By grabbing onto the claim that some doctor once proposed that when a woman is raped, her body secretes something that prevents pregnancy. The statement is ridiculous; it has no scientific merit, but Mr. Akin is motivated to embrace it. It allows him to maintain his opposition to abortion under all circumstances and maintain his belief that he is a kind and decent guy. Understanding dissonance does not require us to condone Mr. Akin's outrageous statement; it merely helps us comprehend it.