OPINION: Cognitive dissonance and the fly of the debate

OPINION: Cognitive dissonance and the fly of the debate

I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. I don’t think I can watch another debate.

They should send out blood pressure monitors, and put some kind of collective read-out on the screen while the candidates debate. That would be a statistic in our statistics-crazed world that would really show something, especially if it had been supplied during the debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. I’ve heard the president says he won’t participate in an upcoming debate if it’s held virtually, which would be a relief, but Trump has a way of changing his mind and between the time I write this and you read it it’s a good bet that’s already happened.

I’ve watched a lot of debates, and the recent one between the two presidential candidates by a country mile was the most upsetting one I ever sat in front of the television to ingest. It may be the worst bit of television I’ve seen ever, and I watched, once, Battle of the Network Stars and Jersey Shore. That debate was worse, even, than the one in which Jimmy Carter was talking about impending doom and Ronald Reagan said “there you go again.” It was even worse than the one when Dan Quayle was told he was no Jack Kennedy (duh).

You watch them out of a sense of civic duty, an affliction I must have caught at an early age, is the only way I can explain it.  I feel obligated, even though not once, not ever, has a debate changed my mind or made me think I might even want to think about changing my mind. From what I gather, I’m hardly alone in this. People know who they’re going to vote for, and tend to be intransigent about it. So, if you’re like me there was nothing that could change your mind about Richard Nixon, or Barry Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan.

Or, even, Nixon the first time around.

The first time around, as in the debate with Kennedy, Nixon looked like a bad guy from one of the westerns that were so popular at the time. In those days, the way to go was clean-shaven, but for some reason understood perhaps only by entertainment industry moguls, outlaws were unable to master this detail of personal facial hygiene. So a five o’clock shadow was a giveaway that you were on the wrong side of the law.

How much did it hurt Nixon? Who can say for certain? 

Because people have their minds made up. Jennifer Senior, the New York Times columnist, wrote recently about this tendency among people to cling to their beliefs no matter what. It’s called cognitive dissonance theory, from psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s, and holds, as Senior noted, that our brains “will go to baroque lengths — do magic tricks, even — to preserve the integrity of our worldview, even when the facts inconveniently club us over the head with a two-by-four.”

Senior was writing about the reaction by the prime-time lineup at Fox News to the news of the president’s COVID-19 diagnosis, but cognitive dissonance can apply to our reaction to the debates as well. Viewers look for reinforcement of already held beliefs, and it likely takes more than the metaphorical two-by-four to shake them free. So the idea of who “won” a debate, essential to the fabric of our winners and losers era, is decided before the debate even takes place.

Acknowledging cognitive dissonance is like imposing term limits; it’s OK for the other guy’s district. I suspect that some kind of true maturity resides in recognizing you’re not immune to the influences of a stubborn world view.

This helps explain why it might come as amusing relief when the legacy of a debate comes down not to substance but to a five-o’clock shadow or, as in the case of the other night’s vice presidential debate, an insect. All the debate preparation in the world couldn’t prepare for what people will likely remember the most: the fly that settled and stayed a while on the head of Vice President Mike Pence.

Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or jkurz@record-journal.com

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