Alternative Facts? Unpacking the role of cognitive dissonance in distorting claims of truth

It appears as if we have officially entered an era that harkens back to the pre-Enlightenment ages with the new administration’s vehement opposition to all things scientific and objective. While the misrepresentation of facts in politics is not a new phenomenon, Kellyanne Conway’s coinage of the term “alternative facts” in defense of Sean Spicer’s (false) statements regarding the size of Trump’s inauguration takes spin-doctoring to a whole new level. Conway’s and Spicer’s comments on NBC and at the White House press conference, respectively, provide a disturbing glimpse into the Trump administration’s intent to construct a “reality” independent of facts à la an Orwellian society in 1984. These comments come on the heels of media comparison photos showing a much larger crowd at Obama’s 2009 inauguration compared to Trump’s inauguration on January 20th.

What is even more chilling than the White House’s blatant disregard of facts is the susceptibility of the public, and specifically his supporters, in believing such false narratives. In a survey conducted by The Washington Post, half of the 1,388 American respondents were shown crowd pictures from both inaugurations and asked to identify which was Trump’s and which was Obama’s, while the other half were shown the same photos and simply asked to identity which had more people. The results from both survey conditions showed that Trump supporters were significantly more likely to give an incorrect answer to the survey question compared to Clinton supporters or those who did not vote.

What could possibly account for this bewildering phenomenon?

The concept of cognitive dissonance has emerged as one of the dominant theories in psychology to explain how incompatible cognitions produce psychological discomfort (or dissonance) that provide a powerful motivation to resolve such tensions, either by changing one’s thoughts or actions to remove any cognitive contradictions. A classic study on this phenomenon established that people who were given less monetary compensation ($1) were more likely to “lie” about how much they enjoyed a monotonous task of arranging pegs to recruit another subject, compared to people who were given more monetary compensation ($20). Unlike the people in the latter group who received sufficient external justification to lie, people in the former group were not so much lying as changing their beliefs to resolve the discomfort (or dissonance) between two inconsistent actions (lying to a new recruit) and beliefs (that the task was boring) (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959).

Festinger’s (1957) dissonance theory asserts that the psychological drive for cognitive consistency is as essential a core motive as the drive to satiate hunger and thirst. In relation to voting behavior and political activity, for example, research has corroborated the impact of actions on political preferences and beliefs as delineated in Festinger’s theory. In their analysis of young people (20 and 21 years old) who were eligible to vote in the previous election and those who were ineligible to vote (18 and 19 years old) from 1976 to 1996, Mullainathan and Washington (2007) found that eligible youth were almost twice as polarized as ineligible voters in their views of their chosen candidate and political party when surveyed two years later; voters were three times more polarized than non-voters when results were scaled by turnout. This means that an 18-year-old eligible voter who was able to express support for Bill Clinton through the concrete act of voting at the polls in 1996 would be more likely to hold a more favorable view of Clinton in 1998 despite a decline in his approval ratings compared to a 17-year-old Clinton supporter who was unable to vote. Another study by Dinas (2014) corroborates these findings, suggesting that the act of voting in an election serves as a reinforcement of partisan sentiment by bolstering group identity.

Over the years, however, Festinger’s proposition of dissonance reduction as a core universal motive has been challenged in subsequent studies. Researchers have found evidence of other factors that complicate the seemingly straightforward narrative of cognitive consonance. Political ideology has been identified as a form of motivated social cognition, wherein conservatives are more epistemically orientated to favor structure, certainty, and closure, and thus, would be more strongly motivated to avoid dissonance-arousing tasks compared to liberals. Current research supports this theory, with one study finding that supporters of Republican presidents were less likely to comply with instructions to write a counter-attitudinal essay about who made a “better president” compared to supporters of Democratic presidents (Nam, Jost, & Van Bavel, 2013).

Adding another layer of complication to the initial theory of cognitive dissonance is the concept of partisan selective exposure, which drives people to seek information that affirms their political viewpoints. Although technological advances have led to a proliferation of news sources that are diverse in content and ideology, scholars have found that nearly a quarter of news consumers almost exclusively utilize attitude-consistent news sources. Mertzger, Hartsell, and Flanagin (2015) posit that such biased news consumption is a result of perceptions of credibility rather than the need to reduce cognitive dissonance. Contrary to logical assumptions, Gunther and Schmitt (2004) found that while attitude-incongruent information initially garnered more attention from people, they ultimately perceived attitude-congruent information as unbiased. Mertzger, Hartsell, and Flanagin (2015) found similar results where participants judged attitude-consistent and unbiased sources as equally credible, while judging attitude challenging sources as less credible than both the attitude-consistent and unbiased sources.

While the results of this last study may provide a more optimistic outlook on political polarization in the US, it is only a paltry assurance considering the ease with which recent events have been distorted and packaged as real news. One only has to take a look at how evidence on the actual size of Trump’s inauguration crowd was manipulated by examining the coverage of this event on CNN versus the Independent Journal Review (IJR), which has been touted as the right wing’s version of Upworthy. CNN published a side-by-side comparison of Obama’s and Trump’s inauguration crowd photos, acknowledging the time and context of each:

“The photo of Trump’s inauguration was taken from television during his speech — peak time for the crowd.

The photo of Obama’s inauguration was taken by Getty and doesn’t indicate the time, but Trump’s should represent his largest audience.”

In contrast, IJR – whose Facebook page, Conservative Daily, has 3.2 million likes – presented the same event with photo evidence from CNN very differently, asserting that one of the photos shows the crowd going “all the way back to two blocks away from the base of the Washington Monument. That is a distance of approximately 1 mile.”

With the accessibility of biased information on websites like IJR that are not held to the same high standards of journalism as other well-established news mediums, it is not difficult to understand the current susceptibility of the public to distortions of facts. Therefore, it would be wise to consider these results in relation to the larger body of research and current events. With an administration that is bent on discrediting even news sources that have traditionally been classified as unbiased, it more important now than ever to advance research and understanding on the cognitive and social biases that cloud our judgement.



Dinas, E. (2014). Does choice bring loyalty? Electoral participation and the development of party identification. American Journal of Political Science, 58(2), 449-465.

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203-210

Metzger, M. J., Hartsell, E. H., & Flanagin, A. J. (2015). Cognitive dissonance or credibility? A comparison of two theoretical explanations for selective exposure to partisan news. Communication Research, 1-26. doi: 10.1177/0093650215613136

Mullainathan, S., & Washington, E. (2009). Sticking with your vote: Cognitive dissonance and political attitudes. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 1(1), 86-111.

Nam, H. H., Jost, J. T., & Van Bavel, J. J. (2013). “Not for All the Tea in China!” Political Ideology and the Avoidance of Dissonance-Arousing Situations. Plos ONE, 8(4), 1-8. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059837


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  1. Skimmed article — frankly, it wasn’t worth my time. The memes were denigrating to anyone with differing political viewpoints. The few comments (cannot call them “facts”) I ran across in my skimming were biased, actually giving credit to questionable sources such as CNN. I assume the authors did not read studies such as those showing that over 90% of coverage of our president by the “mainstream” networks was negative, with the same amount covering HRC as positive, regardless of her many scandals (lying about Benghazi, which put an innocent man in jail; ignoring pleas from the families for facts, destroying evidence, stonewalling congressional committees, selling uranium to the Russians, keeping a private server for classified information, etc.)

    The assumption that PDT makes up information was laughable in the face of the current media crisis, which leaves millions of Americans no longer considering what the networks provide as “news” (and giving them a below 20% trust rating.) When it comes to making up information, Clinton’s pretending she did not understand the question about wiping her computer (“You mean with a cloth?”) and her “What difference does it make” emotional response at a congressional hearing will go down in history. There is a solid reason why she is not president, with even the popular vote in question due to the urging of the Left to get illegals to vote. (The DNC’s ignoring of the Sanders’ vote rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, too.)

    Finally, the photographs with their “cute” captions let anyone not of a leftist persuasion know that they are not welcome in this section. Since I correspond with hundreds of Trump-voting millenials on tumblr, I can verify that “for milleanials, by millenials” does not that mean one-sided, cherry-picked and ad hominem attacks are what they want to see on the net.

  2. I loved that both psychology and politics, two of my favorite topics, are so intertwined in this article; However it is very heavy to read for those who do not have a previous wandering in both subjects. It is sad that this, which concerns us directly every day, has so few visits.

    What I can think of is to lighten the political burden a bit, at least initially, to make it a bit more digestible to people unfamiliar / not interested in any of the two topics.

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Written by Cherise Fung

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Cherise is a recent graduate from Kutztown University with a B.S. in psychology, and minors in political science and literature. She is a budding academic and freelance writer, and is passionate about issues of social justice and activism. She believes that psychology, political science, and literature all work in tandem to enhance the understanding of these issues. She also blogs about postcolonial theory and literature at https://cherisefung.wordpress.com/

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Alternative Facts? Unpacking the role of cognitive dissonance in distorting claims of truth