At the Edge: Cognitive Dissonance

It is common for Catholic politicians to say that they are personally opposed to abortion, but that they must accept the law and the rights of others to have a choice in the matter. They are, then, personally against but politically in favor of the right to abortion.

Although this is a familiar stance, the psychological consequences of these conflicting positions have received little attention. Let us use contemporary psychology to explore the meaning of such “cognitive dissonance”—a technical name for the mental experience of a politician or other person who holds conflicting cognitions. The framework for understanding this situation is found in social psychology, in the study of attitudes and beliefs.

The human mind is complicated, and in any specific case it would be hard to predict how the preceding conflict might be resolved. But psychology does identify ways in which people usually resolve such inner oppositions. One typical way is to reduce the importance of one of the issues in question. Thus many of these politicians might reduce their internal conflict by diminishing the importance of abortion. In other words, they would make abortion less relevant, less central to them—something they would be less involved with.

Similarly, a Catholic politician might reduce the importance of being Catholic. After all, if your religion isn’t very important to you, then a conflict between it and your public political position is not important either. One way to address such politicians is to ask them whether they consider abortion and their church to be important. If they say that either or both are important to them, then they can be challenged—for example, in an interview setting—to cite evidence showing that abortion and their church really matter to them. If on the other hand they say that these two issues are not important to them, this of course makes them vulnerable with regard to the Catholic electorate.

Such are the likely ways of handling the tension between one’s Catholicism and a political stance favoring abortion. Of course, there are other mental strategies. One would be to divide the Church into two categories—the Church as religion, and the Church as political entity; then to interpret abortion as a political phenomenon, and to associate politics with the ability of the Church to make mistakes. Nevertheless, such a distinction almost inevitably means a reduction in the importance of Catholicism as well, since from the time of the Crucifixion to the age of St. Thomas More to the present day, the Church is commonly drawn into politics.

Another kind of psychology of attitude change is relevant here. Studies have shown that when people are pressured to make a public statement that they privately disagree with, their attitude changes after taking a public position. It is not surprising that after such public “witnessing” they become less favorable to what they originally believed and more in agreement with what they were pressured into saying. We can assume that this is the probable effect on many “Catholic” politicians.

What is surprising about this research, however, is the following: a person who was under great pressure or received a large bribe to make a public statement at variance with private belief is less apt to change his private opinion than a person who was given a small bribe or was subject only to minor pressure. For example, if a politician could get the nomination for the presidency only by becoming pro-abortion, he might still maintain his private opposition to it. (Jimmy Carter was not a Catholic but he was opposed to abortion until presidential ambitions or other great pressures induced him to remain silent on the issue. He has recently expressed remorse over his failure to speak out against abortion.) But if a politician, for small social reasons or small contributions to his campaign fund should speak favorably of either pro-abortion politicians or their position, then he is far more apt to make major internal changes in his beliefs. Such small compromises cannot be rationalized as due to enormous pressures to which one simply must succumb. Instead, to maintain one’s sense of integrity, one changes one’s opinion about the issue in question.

As we reflect on psychological research about tensions between attitudes and about attitude change, one conclusion is clear: politicians who publicly support the right to an abortion but say that they are personally opposed are caught in serious cognitive dissonance.

If for the preceding psychological reasons Catholic politicians have reduced the conflict between their private faith and their public positions, it is up to us to increase their level of cognitive dissonance—in the hope that they will find another, truly Catholic way to resolve it.


  • Paul C. Vitz

    Paul Vitz is a popular author and professor of psychology at New York University.

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